Automotive engineering

Guest blog: why test tracks remain crucial for automotive engineering

Nick Wignall, Tracks Manager at UTAC CERAM Millbrook, explains the role physical test tracks play in vehicle testing and validation, and how recent developments ensure that they remain crucial to the future of the automotive engineering.

Aerial view of the iconic UTAC CERAM Millbrook Bedfordshire proving ground

In this blog series invited by my colleagues at UTAC CERAM Millbrook, we took a close look at a range of new and future technologies, to help automotive engineers keep pace with consumer demands and legislation.

In a world of smart simulation technology and highly advanced climate chambers, it would be easy to think that physical test tracks will soon be a thing of the past. Reality couldn’t be further from the truth.

It’s been over half a century since our Bedfordshire site opened its 70km of test tracks. Its mix of high-speed and dynamic handling tracks, as well as low-speed “real-world” simulation environments such as in the city, make the facility’s tracks just as vital to customer development programs as the plethora of dynamometers and simulation platforms. The same goes for our test tracks in Mortefontaine and Linas-Monthléry, France, as well as our indoor and outdoor winter test facilities in northern Finland.

The beauty of track testing is that there are many different types of tracks designed to replicate almost any type of environment or real world situation. At all of our sites, we have the ability to test a vehicle in almost any scenario, allowing our customers to integrate track work throughout their development programs.

Being able to put a vehicle on a physical track to validate a theory or a development path that you could explore in the lab or in a simulator is invaluable. It is also true that most of the tests necessary to obtain type approval require that the vehicle be driven on a track, usually adapted to specific technical regulations.

So what types of tracks does the UTAC CERAM Millbrook have and how do engineers use them to develop new vehicles and components? Below are some of the latest developments on the track.

5G compatible test tracks

Millbrook Proving Ground was the first site in the UK to install a 5G network specifically for automotive development and testing. With a network that covers and operates across the entire proving ground, including our high-speed circuit, hill road, and city route, the 5G network has recently been upgraded to the stand-alone network. The densest private 5G in Europe.

test tracks
Millbrook Proving Ground 5G test bed is the densest private 5G autonomous network in Europe

Our 5G network enables ultra-low latency data transfer to and from a test vehicle, meaning engineers can review test data in real time, allowing our track tests to be more effective than ever.

We also have a test center in France dedicated to the testing of connected and autonomous vehicles (TEQMO). This is based on the historic Autodrome de Linas-Montlhéry and includes 12 km of test tracks, platforms, junctions and soft targets, as well as several laboratories.

Off-road tracks

Our most varied and arguably the most exciting trails include our all-terrain circuit which has been used for a range of vehicles, from all-terrain vehicles to military vehicles. These trails include extremely steep gravel and sand hills, sharp turns, wading pools and ditches, to name a few.

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Millbrook is also used by the armed forces to put military vehicles to the test

The seat of the British mission on the battlefield, Millbrook Proving Ground is well used by the armed forces to determine the performance and durability of its vehicles. In fact, MOD’s Technology Demonstrator 6 (TD6) project, which aims to determine the benefits that hybrid vehicles can bring to today’s battlefield mission, is strongly supported by UTAC CERAM Millbrook.

Snow and ice tests all year round

When developing a vehicle, powertrain, or component, often a crucial part of the program is to expose the product to extremely cold temperatures. In recent years, the advancement of climatic test chambers has made it often easier, faster and more cost effective to create these temperatures under laboratory conditions.

One area where real-world cold weather testing is still essential, however, is tire development. We all know how crucial it is for a vehicle’s tires to be able to operate on ice and snow. Based in Ivalo, on the edge of the Arctic Circle in Finland, our winter testing center has indoor and outdoor tracks, allowing engineers to test tires on snow, ice, wet and dry surfaces all year round.

Outdoor installations for cold weather in Ivalo, Finland

New Test Center in Morocco

At the other end of the thermometer is the last UTAC CERAM Millbrook test center in Oued Zem, 150km from Casablanca in Morocco. Similar to Test World, part of the reason for choosing to build this new facility in North Africa is the reliability of the weather conditions, which makes the tests more reproducible.

The Oued Zem facility will feature a 4 km track unique in Europe and Africa, and will be certified for use in type approval testing. We look forward to the opening of this facility later this year.

So you can see that with continued investment and development, the physical test tracks for which UTAC CERAM Millbrook first built its reputation have a long future ahead of them, as a crucial part of the future ecosystem of vehicle development.