Some people wait for Winter to come. But in Kapuskasing, Ontario, the cold never leaves this state-of-the-art test facility. Originally opened in 1941 as a military vehicle test facility for the government, the campus has grown into one of the largest of its kind in the province. Combined with its sister facilities in Markham and Oshawa, GM’s presence in Canada has created one of the largest technical centres outside of the United States. This includes software engineering and development for various products in the automaker’s portfolio.
Focusing back on the testing, the facility sees the most activity during the coldest months of the year. From December to February, temperatures can dip to below -40C. This provides the perfect backdrop for stressing future and current vehicle designs to their limits.
GM took over the facility in 1973 and has continued to develop the 272 acres of land into a veritable torture chamber for vehicles. The advanced test track offers 3.6 KMs of fully monitored road, sending telemetry back to the control centre, with full WiFi coverage and smart camera systems. A thirteen-vehicle garage stores all vehicles for the sole purpose of subjecting them to even more brutal cold weather treatment. Thirty cold cells simulate temperatures at or even below the aforementioned -40C.
These extreme temperatures and controlled conditions allow GM to test their designs in motion and stationary conditions. Surviving these extreme tests means that consumers get much safer vehicles that have met or exceeded typical driving conditions. Those margins of error give drivers great confidence that their vehicles will get them, their families, and their loved ones safe from one destination to another.
GM tests between 150 – 200 vehicles in the facility non-stop during the coldest times of the year, which is typically the December to February timeframe. During this time, vehicles of various development stages are brought in to prove their mettle against the harsh sub-zero climates. When we mention various stages, the facility tests everything from built prototypes, like the upcoming HUMMER EV, to products that are just going into production like the brand new 2022 BOLT EV and EUVs. GM also returns some vehicles for additional freezing cycles for ongoing quality assurance, collecting data to enhance their performance and measure longevity.
In addition to full vehicle testing, components also receive torture testing at the facility. Using indoor and outdoor environments, everything from batteries to body panels all get thrown to the proverbial frozen hell torture. By doing this, GM can quickly discover whether new designs, materials, or formulations will work in the real world, under the worst possible conditions.
By testing individual components and exposing any weaknesses under extreme circumstances, they have the ability to reproduce issues manifested in the real world or reveal new ones. GM can quickly diagnose and resolve those engineering problems with certainty. ‘Recall’ is a costly word in the automotive industry. If an issue does arise, this gives the automaker a fast track to understanding and executing a solution. This, in turn, has less impact on both the manufacturer and the people who rely on their vehicles every day. Vehicles can have repairs done and be returned to owners with confidence.
At CES 2021 this year, GM unveiled their new direction and their plans for an electrified future. That means a series of new vehicles must meet the same stringent requirements as the vehicles they will phase out. Everything that the automaker has learned from their non-stop testing of internal combustion engine vehicles will now be the catalyst to creating more reliable and practical electric vehicles. Whether the vehicle has internal combustion or an electric drivetrain, GM will test them to the same reliability levels. With so many brands trying to enter the market with electric vehicles of their own, this stringent testing continues to be a competitive advantage.
One area that is a current sore spot for electric vehicles is range and reliability in cold climates. Electric vehicle owners, like myself, have to be more mindful as the cold conditions can remove anywhere between 10 – 25% of my range. Heating and the battery conditioning technology that keeps the battery ready to go, all factor in the this range loss. By being able to test vehicles in these conditions for extended periods of time, GM has an advantage. Eventually, they will move towards offering electric options through all of its brands, this will likely be a key part of future testing at the facility. We can expect their new Ultium battery technology to be part of this testing.
Looking forward to this electric future, GM has outfitted the Kapuskasing Proving Grounds with the capacity to pull over 2.5 Megawatts of electricity. This is capable of powering 1500 typical homes. It should also sufficiently power DC Fast Charging infrastructure as the automaker continues to scale its testing of both future and current electric vehicle designs.
While we expect that most, if not all, manufacturers do some extreme cold-weather testing, GM is one of few that have complete control of the process. This integrity in the process and the Kapuskasing Proving Grounds should serve the automaker well in the coming years.