Freightliner adds capabilities to South Bend proving grounds

by James Menzies

SOUTH BEND, Ind. – Freightliner has built a $2.5 million, 24,600 sq. ft. facility at the expansive proving grounds the company uses for vehicle testing in South Bend, Ind.

The building houses state-of-the-art equipment used for servicing test vehicles and offices for use by Freightliner staff. The 675-acre proving grounds are used by Freightliner to test all of its brands including Sterling and Western Star.

The proving grounds (originally built by Studebaker in the 1920s) include a three-mile oval as well as a “torture track” with off-road sections with major bumps and potholes.

“This is the place where we push the company’s vehicles to their limits,” says Ramin Younessi, chief test engineer for Freightliner. “We want to ensure that every vehicle produced by the company will stand up to the rigors of operation and perform safely, productively and consistently.”

Accelerated durability testing is the primary focus of testing at the South Bend proving grounds, company officials say. The testing evaluates the structural integrity and reliability of every component on the test vehicles.

“Imagine the worst road you have ever driven on,” adds Younessi. “That’s what we run our test vehicles on every day seven days per week.”

At any given time there are 21 test vehicles undergoing extensive testing at the proving grounds. Each costs more than $1 million to build as they often include customized components. Younessi says 122,000 “durability miles” on the torture track is the equivalent to about 10.1 million miles.

Freightliner began testing at the South Bend proving grounds in 1980 and so far it has accumulated more than 1.1 million durability miles – the equivalent to about 100 million highway miles – there. The torture track has every type of bump imaginable, including chatter bumps, impact bumps, inverted chatter bumps, cobblestones, potholes and undulating roads. But Younessi says it’s not just a matter of beating up on trucks at random, there’s a science behind everything engineers do there.

“There’s some science to it in terms of width and depth – it’s not just some rocks out there we’re driving over,” he insists. In fact, Younessi adds the track is up to 1.5 metres deep so the surface doesn’t erode over time, impacting the events.

“You don’t want these bumps changing because we want to know exactly the impacts on the chassis,” Younessi says.

Freightliner engineers have travelled North America to see exactly the types of terrain their trucks will be traversing in the real world and use the torture track to simulate those events.

“We have analytical data behind all of these events,” Younessi explains. “We can correlate everything that happens on the track to what happens in the real world. If we drive a mile over chatter bumps here, we know that could mean 50 miles on certain sections of road in Pennsylvania.”

Seventeen Freightliner engineers work at the proving grounds and another 750 or so engineers work at home base in Portland, Ore.

“There’s a lot of communication and a lot of reporting,” says Younessi. “Effective communication is just as important as the testing we do here.”

He adds every one of the South Bend engineers is well-versed on each component on the test truck they are working with.

“Each of the technicians who work here are super-techs, they’re not mechanics,” he insists. “They know the trucks inside and out. They can even tell when something’s going to happen before a factor occurs.”

Younessi adds “It takes some very special test drivers to be able to meet the rigors of our operation and some very special test engineers to be able to inspect and determine the structural integrity of the components.”

Each of the engineers is excited about the new facility, which was officially opened for business in May.

“This is a big improvement for us in terms of working conditions and it allows us to focus more on testing and improving our products,” Younessi says. n


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