New York Times
December 20, 2004


To Test Snow Tires, What Could Top Florida in July?


EGLIN AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. -- IN this part of Florida, you need to keep a parka handy. Over the course of a day the temperature can plummet from a sweaty 85 degrees down to a frigid 50 below zero, and a blizzard can sweep through any day, all year round.

This meteorological paradox is the McKinley Climatic Laboratory, located at Eglin Air Force Base near Fort Walton Beach in the Florida Panhandle.

To prove the durability of their products, automakers and their parts suppliers have traveled the world searching for the snow, ice and frosty temperatures available here. While ideal conditions may be closer to a company's operations for part of the year - like the Upper Peninsula of Michigan - when it is summer in the Northern Hemisphere, it may be necessary to travel to the Waiorau Nordic Ski Area in New Zealand for the required climate.

More and more often these days, the companies head south to Florida when they want cold - really cold - conditions to test their tires, engines and entire cars.

McKinley's indoor icebox can deposit all the snow that testing engineers wish for and produce a chill as low as 65 degrees below zero on the Fahrenheit scale. It does this even while Floridians are sweltering outside the main chamber of the giant lab, which is almost 300 feet square.

A group of Goodyear engineers recently came to Florida after two weeks of testing the company's Assurance TripleTred tire in New Zealand. The tire, which the company calls an "any weather" design, replaces the Aquatred 3 all-season model.

With temperatures in the high 80's outside, Goodyear researchers in polar garb walked down two flights of stairs, passing through doors that would be at home on a bank vault to enter Eglin's main test chamber. Inside, the conditions are similar to those that motorists experience every winter in the northern United States.

"See, it does snow in Florida," said Rick Neale, a tire test engineer for Goodyear, as he peered through a window overlooking the weather chamber, which had been cooled to 8 degrees and blanketed in 8 inches of snow. "It's like snow you would find on a ski slope," he said.

Goodyear researchers hope to use the data gathered at Eglin to improve the Assurance tires, which contain spiky glass fibers and fine volcanic sand from Idaho in the rubber compound of the tread. As the tire wears, the fibers open up microscopic holes that act like tiny suction cups. The grains of sand work like miniature claws for better grip in rain or snow.

Ford Motor Company used the Eglin facility for the first time in September, just a few weeks before Goodyear's visit. In 4 to 8 inches of snow, Ford engineers worked to develop the electronic stability control systems that are now available on Ford, Lincoln and Mercury sport utilities.

"When I told the test team they had to go to Florida to do cold-weather testing, they just kind of smiled," Bob Doyle, who oversees Ford's cold weather and wind tunnel test sites, said. "But what do you do in the summer?"

Ford returned in November to perform more winter tests on some prototype transmissions and engines.

It is not just arctic weather that companies seek when developing new models. Ford researchers put the 330-volt nickel-metal-hydride battery pack of the Escape Hybrid through a simulated Phoenix summer, placing it in a weather chamber for six months. The battery was also tested in minus 40 degree weather in Manitoba, Canada, and subjected to temperatures over 130 degrees in Death Valley, Calif.

Mary Ann Wright, director of hybrid programs at Ford, oversaw development of the hybrid battery. She said 15 Escape Hybrids crisscrossed the United States, rolling up 2.5 million miles in the deserts of Nevada, the hills of San Francisco and the icy roadways of upper Michigan.

"We had to validate the cell life and make sure there was sufficient power, even in the most extreme conditions," Ms. Wright said. "No customer will ever drive this vehicle the way we did."

Researchers say laboratories like Eglin's offer many advantages over testing outdoors, including the consistency and repeatability of weather conditions, a necessity for scientifically valid results. Also, it is cheaper to rent the Eglin facility, even at $15,000 to $30,000 a day, than to ship cars to distant destinations like New Zealand, Mr. Doyle said.

"We're doing more testing than we ever did in the past, and we have to do it faster," said Ray Nicosia, a Ford engineer who supervised development of the Five Hundred sedan and Freestyle utility wagon.

The increased civilian use of the McKinley lab comes as automakers like Ford are closing some North American testing centers to cut costs. The lab, which was built to test military aircraft after World War II, began operating in 1947; today, after a three-year, $90 million overhaul, half its time is booked by companies for testing commercial products - even people spending the night in sleeping bags in Alaskan conditions to see how warm and comfortable they stay. Companies must reserve time a year in advance.

Kirk Velasco, the laboratory's leader since 1983, says aircraft companies currently account for two-thirds of the nearly $2 million a year the lab earns from commercial testing.

"There's a lot of classified stuff and supersecret technology I don't get to see," Mr. Velasco said. "We're not trying to make a profit. I just need enough funding to pay our electric bill."

Nature's Labs In Hot or Cold


HERE are some of the far-flung areas to which automakers travel for road tests of new models in extreme weather:


Australian Outback: This harsh desert area covers about a third of the country, and from November to March temperatures hover around 100 degrees.

Death Valley, Calif.: Summers are extremely hot and very dry, with typical high temperatures above 120 degrees and average readings from 105 to 115 from June through September. Average annual rainfall is about 2 inches.

Phoenix: Temperatures break 100 degrees an average of 89 days a year in this city in the heart of the Sonoran Desert, and often soar above 110.


Upper Peninsula of Michigan: From November to March, the temperature is typically below freezing, and the average annual snowfall is 15 feet. It has snowed as late as June 9 and as early as Sept. 1 in Ironwood, making the area popular for cold-weather testing.

Thompson, Manitoba: Arctic blasts last from the end of November to mid-April in this Canadian town. About 6 feet of snow falls during the winter and the mercury typically dips below freezing nearly every day from November to April.

Waiorau, New Zealand: Companies can take advantage of the light, dry snow in the Southern Alps from July to September. This area in the Southern Hemisphere includes mountains as high as 6,500 feet and receives more than eight feet of snow a year. | Experience | Stories | Contact Duwayne | Links
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