Northern Minnesota a real-world lab for cold-weather car testing
Baudette, Minn. — Joe Miller remembers his first visit to the town that bills itself as the “Walleye Capital of the World.”
“I thought, ‘These people are hardy,’ as my left eyeball froze shut,” he recalled with a chuckle.
Four years later, Miller has developed a new appreciation for wintertime here along the Canadian border.
Miller manages the Bosch cold-weather testing facility, a 625-acre expanse of ice and snow where vehicles from the world’s leading automakers are tested for performance in severe weather conditions — or what Minnesotans call “winter.”
Seven days a week, 12 hours a day, cars and trucks slide down icy hills, skid through snowy slalom courses and race down slick roads designed to test just how far they can go before spinning out of control.
Many of the safety features that drivers take for granted today — such as anti-lock brakes and electronic stability control — were developed through testing in this city of 1,000 residents some 335 miles northwest of the Twin Cities.
“They bring in people from all over the world to show what they’re doing,” said Dave Marhula, a retired real estate agent, speaking with pride of the city’s role in the high-tech business. “And they all rave about the world-class facility in Baudette.”
Northern Minnesota is a hot spot for cold-weather vehicle testing, with more than a half-dozen other facilities scattered throughout the region, including in Bemidji and International Falls. Some are full-service outfits like Bosch; others are simple “cold boxes” where manufacturers park cars for extended periods and then see if they’ll start after a good stint at 30 below.
In Baudette, Bosch books so many rooms at the AmericInn for the entire winter — a block of 45 — that the owners added a new wing to handle the traffic.
Baudette was chosen by Bosch, a German company, 30 years ago for a few simple reasons. It’s reliably cold, it gets snow — but not too much — and it’s remote. It might help, too, that Lake of the Woods County is the only county in the Lower 48 without a stoplight.
The vehicles tested here often include prototypes of new models that won’t be on the market for several years. Auto magazines and websites often station spy photographers at test facilities to snap sneak peeks at the test “mules,” as the prototypes are called.
In Baudette — where the temperature hit 45 below for several days this month — few, if any, photographers hang around the gates.
At the height of winter testing season, which runs from Thanksgiving through early March, as many as 90 people are working at the site. About 35 are local residents, many of them involved in building, grooming and maintaining the snow and ice fields where testing takes place.
On the course, certified test-drivers follow strict protocol on and off the 10 miles of roadway.
“This is a test environment,” Miller said. “It’s not the Indianapolis 500.” The test-drivers’ mantra: “Keep the round things on the ground.”
There’s talk of algorithms and lateral adhesion. A big topic is “mu,” a measurement of the friction between the vehicle and the surface. “High mu” means there’s grip; “low mu” means conditions are slippery. They also test with “split mu,” where one set of wheels is on ice or snow and the other is on dry pavement.
Scattered throughout the grounds are large, open fields of snow or ice, some as large as six football fields. Test cars, often encased in camouflage wrappers, throw up plumes of snow as they fishtail through turns and weave among pylons.
It’s a hive of activity that brightens the long winters for the locals.
“They’re welcome and they know it,” said Levasseur, the Legion manager. “We would be devastated if they pulled up and left here.”