Fall is just around the corner and winter testing for cars is already here.
It’s a steamy 35 C in this small city on the Florida panhandle. Meanwhile, I am inside a giant chamber, suited up in full winter gear and watching snowflakes fall from the ceiling onto a line of vehicles below.
It’s -28 C inside the McKinley Climatic Laboratory on the Eglin Air Force Base, and Ford is showing me how it tests its cars and trucks for winter compatibility.
“One of the things we’re looking at is cold starts,” says Rich Shimon, technical expert on gasoline powertrain calibration for Ford. “When drivers get into the vehicle, they expect it to start right away and have a comfortable idle speed. Our job is to make sure our vehicles do that under any conceivable condition and with any conceivable fuel, and now we’re doing the extreme cold-weather testing.”
Accurate testing depends on stable conditions, which is why McKinley was constructed in the first place. Many fighter planes wouldn’t start in the cold during the Second World War, and since it couldn’t count on consistent weather outside, the U.S. government commissioned the facility for testing during equipment development. It was finished in 1947, and following a major renovation that wrapped up in 1997, it was then opened up to outside companies. It runs 24 hours a day and is fully booked for the next three years.
Its five chambers can reproduce any type of weather, except tornadoes and lightning strikes. It’s the largest in the world at 5,110 square metres, can go from a high of 48 C to a low of -65 C overnight, and can replicate hurricanes, fog, freezing rain and sandstorms.
Depending on the chamber used and the type of weather requested, rental costs range from $8,000 to $30,000 (U.S.) per day.
Ford uses the big chamber for three weeks each year, primarily because of its capacity. “We’re able to get 72 vehicles and 54 engineers into the chamber,” Shimon says. Back in Michigan, his team has to share Ford’s four smaller test chambers with other departments, and it would take months to do what he can achieve in Florida in three weeks.