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FCA lab put cars through indoor blizzard year round

Michael Martinez
The Detroit News

Auburn Hills — The temperature outside Friday touched the mid-80s, but inside a corner of Fiat Chrysler Automobile’s sprawling technical center at its U.S. headquarters, a 2015 Jeep Renegade Trailhawk 4x4 was slogging through blizzard-like conditions.

A 450-horsepower blower was blasting the compact SUV with snow in a drive test cell where temperatures dipped to 5 degrees and wind speeds reached 25 miles per hour. It’s part of a testing lab that earlier this year underwent $2.5 million in upgrades to include 4x4 dynamometer rollers so FCA can test all-wheel-drive vehicles up to 125 miles per hour.

“Our world-class environmental test center provides dynamic and static testing conditions to simulate the climatic environments that are experienced by our customers around the world,” John Nigro, vice president, product development of FCA North America, said.

Vehicles can be tested in conditions ranging from minus 40 degrees to 130 degrees. Wind speeds can reach 100 mph.

Engineer can measure things like the durability of exterior materials in extreme cold or heat, or how certain fuels — gas, diesel, ethanol — react in different weather. In this case, they were looking at whether air intakes might get clogged with snow in a blizzard and shut down the engine.

The physical test using real snow was the final validation after computer simulations using virtual snow. The so-called computational fluid dynamics tests are so accurate that Fiat Chrysler can make design fixes to air ducts or other parts in the pre-production phase, instead of making late fixes to physical models.

“The engineers feel very comfortable that what they get in the simulations is what they’ll see here (in the climate test cells),” said Anthony Kroll, a drive cell supervisor.

The computational fluid dynamics team works right down the hall from the climate test cell team, allowing for good communication and quick responses to questions or issues.

The labs are part of the automaker’s massive 5.4 million-square-foot Chrysler Technical Center, which employs more than 14,200 workers. The complex is home to a wind tunnel and a number of other testing facilities, conference rooms and collaboration spaces where workers are encouraged to share ideas. The center even includes two hair salons, four dining facilities, a fitness center, baseball diamond, and basketball and volleyball courts.

A team of about 14 works in the climate test lab on three shifts 24 hours a day, and can run about 100 weather-related tests. It first opened in 1991. Recent upgrades include new front dynamometers that can measure up to 350 horsepower and rear dynamometers that can accommodate up to 650 horsepower.

“We’ve upped our game to match some of the horsepower of some of the new vehicles we’ve been developing,” said Pete Jonko Jr., a drive cell operations specialist.

The company also made improvements to ductwork and exhaust capabilities so the lab can accommodate high-output engines.

“With more 4x4 and all-wheel drive vehicles in our fleet than ever, this investment will go a long way to providing the durable cars and trucks our customers expect from us,” Nigro said.

mmartinez@detroitnews.com

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Twitter.com/MikeMartinez_DN