Testing Cars In Death Valley: How Tough?
September 20, 2007
How does it feel to test cars in the hottest place in California – Death Valley? Some say it is torture! One has to endure not just the scorching heat of the sun but the persistent spies who are thirsty for details.
Lee Foster was leading a team of engineers from South Korean automaker Kia putting disguised cars through the most grueling tests imaginable. All the while, they had to fend off a legion of car paparazzi intent on grabbing shots of vehicles that had not yet been shown publicly, reported the Free Press.
The cat-and-mouse game plays out all summer in Death Valley National Park, where the temperature was the highest in the United States on all but three days last month. The destination's scorching conditions draw automotive teams from around the world to see whether their latest engines, transmissions and air conditioners can take the heat, the report continued.
"Death Valley is the mecca for car testers," Foster said.
In August, USA Today was vested rare access to a Death Valley Kia testing excursion on a typical 117-degree day to witness what the cars and engineers endure to finish the activity. According to the correspondents, the engineers’ work is sweaty and tedious.
What does it take to be a testing engineer? The report said: “Unrelenting heat takes its toll on team members, who stay at a $51-a-night hotel, catch lunch on the run, and put in 12-hour workdays for four or five days at a stretch. From nearly dawn to dusk, Kia's engineers and contractors tinkered with engines, recorded data and gained insight on improving performance. The test data can prove invaluable. Any breakthrough to enhance performance or endurance can be an edge in the car business.”
"From our perspective, if we can beat the goal, that's something else Kia can advertise," Powertrain Evaluation Engineer David Peterson noted.
Kia team included four members from South Korea. Also part of the team was Tony Vespa, a former top cooling engineer at Chrysler. "This is fun. I never got to turn wrenches at my other company," he said.
Whatever the tests, secrecy was an obsession. The vehicles were camouflaged by yards of black vinyl with foam inserts over the hoods, sides and rear to shroud design details. The secrecy policy is to preclude both competitors and the paparazzi from getting information about the vehicle before the automaker is ready to launch them.
Every hint of what a new car looks like can prove helpful to the spy photographers, who come from all over the world to trail the teams around Death Valley. “That's the secret of Death Valley,” stressed Foster. “It's not just the heat: It's the hills.” Engineers pay attention to temperatures of transmission fluid and engine oil all the way up.
For the Kia team, protecting the test cars is a little like being a lame jack rabbit stalked by a hungry coyote, because they often return to Stovepipe to regroup. Still, they do their best. Vespa said the day before a photographer swerved dangerously in front of the Kia convoy, apparently because they tried to block his view of the crossover. He said that the photographer shook his fist at them. "They do their tricks. We do ours," Vespa added.
"You are a complete idiot when you act like that," said Robert Sandseth, on assignment from Bodo, Norway. He denied making any wild turns himself. All told, the car companies and photographers are reasonably well-behaved, said U.S. Park Service spokesman Terry Baldino.
Now you know the rigors of testing Bilstein Shocks and other auto parts as well as new cars.
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