Simulated road, real safety

Testing: A new facility at Aberdeen Proving Ground will help the Army detect flaws in the design of its heavyweight vehicles.

April 13, 2003|By Erika Hobbs | Erika Hobbs,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Aberdeen Proving Ground researchers are set to open what is being called the world's largest truck-testing facility, a $38.5 million high-tech megacenter designed to uplift the Army's beleaguered transportation-design reputation and to attract the international automotive industry's attention.

The roadway simulator, a nine-year undertaking by the U.S. Army Aberdeen Test Center, is the automobile industry's equivalent of a stress test. Much as physicians wire patients running on a treadmill to pinpoint heart problems, engineers bolt large military vehicles -- driven by a faceless blue robot nicknamed "Bert" -- onto four treadmill-like tracks and run them through strenuous tests to diagnose design flaws.

It is the largest and most sophisticated diagnostic machine of its kind, said Greg Schultz, a mechanical engineer and creator of the simulator who led the project. The roadway simulator was designed to improve the Army's ability to detect flaws, and to save money, time and possibly soldiers' lives. It is expected to open after a private ceremony at 10 a.m. Wednesday at Aberdeen Proving Ground.

The simulator works much like the test reviews found in Car and Driver magazine, Schultz said, but its information will help "revolutionize the design of military vehicles."

While similar, though smaller, simulators have operated in the United States and in Italy for about 20 years, the facilities -- including a military site in Michigan -- can test only basic qualities, such as for parts endurance or noise reduction, through vibration tests. Most handle only passenger cars. Italy's two simulators were built for Fiat in the late 1990s by MTS Systems Corp. of Minnesota, which also built Aberdeen's new system.

Aberdeen's system surpasses the testing ability of other centers, Schultz said.

It also dwarfs its competition: The building is 160 feet long by 85 feet wide, with 5-foot-thick concrete floors, and is equipped to test two-axle vehicles, such as Humvees, that weigh as much as 26,000 pounds. By next year, it will be capable of testing tractor-trailers weighing as much as 80,000 pounds.

And Aberdeen's simulator is the only one that permits researchers to investigate trucks while they are driven. That will enable researchers to examine concerns such as driveline dynamics, braking ability or steering and handling capacity.

Schultz said the simulator can push a military vehicle to as much as 120 mph to find out at what point it rolls over, and it can repeat the test until researchers gain the information they need. That cannot be done at other test sites -- or with a human driver, he said.

It is problems such as rollovers and tipping -- undetectable with some outdoor test and modeling methods -- that Schultz said the Army aimed to eliminate by using the simulator. The Army's management of its truck fleet came under close scrutiny in 1998 after Army officials reported that airbrakes on more than 30,000 of the Army's older 5-ton trucks contributed to increased highway accidents, more than 120 rollovers and about 50 military deaths during the decade. Also in 1998, Army officials severely restricted the speed of its newer 2 1/2 -ton and 5-ton trucks called the family of medium tactical vehicles (FMTVs). Investigators detected drive-train problems that contributed to rollover accidents. The problem has since been resolved.

The Army is expected to spend nearly $16 billion over three decades to upgrade its truck fleet with FMTVs under a program that began in 1991. FMTV's are designed to carry troops and cargo at 55 mph during battle.

They will be the first vehicles tested at Aberdeen's new roadway simulator facility.

"No one else has the money or resources to do a project like this," Schultz said. Aberdeen plans to contract the simulator to state and federal agencies, including the Department of Defense, universities and the private sector, Army spokesmen said. A joint test conducted by Auburn University and the Department of Transportation is slated for the summer. Army spokesmen also said that representatives from overseas industries and the U.S. racing community have expressed interest in using the site.

"We are looking to speed research and do things we haven't been able to do before. This is the most effective tool to do that," said Jim Britell, staff engineer at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in Washington, which is considering contracting with Aberdeen.

Such contracts are expected to pay for the site's maintenance and improvements.

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