Brimley, Mich. — Nestled among acres of northern Michigan pines near World War II-era radar stations and military bases, Continental AG’s secluded Brimley Development Center is seemingly set in the past. But the cutting-edge technologies developed there over the last decade are anything but.
The German-based supplier uses the sprawling test track to evaluate tires, brake systems and autonomous car sensors on a variety of road surfaces amid the Upper Peninsula’s punishing winters.
The Brimley Development Center has about 15 permanent employees, but during the center’s busy time, from January through March, that number grows to around 100 engineers, technicians and support staff who regularly put in 60-hour weeks.
Workers speed along ice-covered asphalt before slamming on anti-lock brakes. They weave in and out of cones to test the ability of electronic stability controls in slippery conditions, and climb steep, snow-covered hills with cruise control engaged. They take laps around the track to see how self-driving radar sensors work when lane markings are obscured by snowstorms. Outside the winter months, they test those same systems in dry, hot conditions.
Continental has been testing in the U.P. for more than a decade. Before Brimley, the supplier used the decommissioned Raco Army Airfield, but in the mid-’90s, they decided they needed their own space.
The site — built on 540 acres of farmland and located a half-mile off the closest public road — was originally meant to test anti-lock brake systems, but has been expanded to include various road surfaces and, most recently, an environmental chamber that can put vehicle systems through extreme heat and cold.
While many automakers and suppliers are flocking to more cosmopolitan test sites like Ann Arbor’s MCity, Continental executives say owning a dedicated test track and validation site is valuable, and its year-round capability allows Continental and other suppliers and automakers to bring technology to the market quicker.
“We still need a facility like this,” said Jeremy Tuggle, Continental’s engineering manager of systems concepts, systems and technology chassis and safety division. “It’s great for the local economy, great for the company itself; we have the ability to customize our services.”
The site features a 1-mile oval for highway-speed tests; a 1,000-foot gravel road and dynamics area; a 21-acre asphalt pad; a 30-degree rocky hill; and a 30-degree hill with rollers for testing traction control. Private garage bays allow automakers and suppliers to analyze certain systems in secrecy.
And, in the off chance that Mother Nature doesn’t cooperate, the Brimley crew has the capability to make their own snow and ice.
“Our facility offers a really unique opportunity,” said Ryan Alaspa, the site’s manager who’s worked for Continental for 18 years. “It’s an efficient way to get a lot of work done.”
Employees have few entertainment options outside of work, but often pass the time by playing poker, shooting hoops at Lake Superior State University, and even hosting impromptu hockey games on the remote test site’s ample ice. Tests are sometimes interrupted by curious deer, moose and an occasional bear, but workers joke that it’s nothing a couple revs of a loud Corvette engine can’t fix.
“Working in the U.P. isn’t for everyone,” Alaspa said. “If you enjoy the outdoors.... then working at a place like this is for you.”
The supplier invites members of the news media to the site once a year to test out its latest technology. In its most recent ride-and-drive event, Continental executives showed off its latest autonomous car technology and tested everything from emergency steering-assist systems to pedestrian-detection warnings.
In one instance, Continental outfitted the 1-mile loop with “traffic lights” that were connected to a software system in the car, which told the driver whether or not they’d be able to make it before the light turned red. In a separate demonstration, the supplier’s latest adaptive cruise control scaled the 30-degree rock hill mostly on its own; all the driver had to do was steer.
“There’s certainly some advantages to a site like this, when you’re talking about new technology,” Alaspa said. “Working in an exciting and fast-paced auto industry while living in Northern Michigan is really unique.”