Proving Grounds Are the Hush-Hush Heroes of the Latest Automotive Test Technology

Millbrook Proving Ground, once owned by GM and now part of Spectris, plays a behind-the-headlines part in AV development and testing.

Millbrook’s 4WD Powertrain Test System can manage 700-plus hp rear-wheel-drive supercars. (Millbrook)

The world’s independent vehicle test-track operators often are the unsung heroes of new-vehicle development. They work in an atmosphere of secrecy that arguably exceeds that of individual auto companies, having to ensure that the hush-hush R&D projects of manufacturers remain cloaked from the gaze of media and public.

Aerial view of Millbrook Proving Ground. (Millbrook)

Independent proving grounds also must operate in an impartial atmosphere of automotive diplomacy ensuring that they do not spill the beans about how, for instance, particular customers are making the jump to the next SAE level of autonomous vehicle (AV) technology, tackling electric-vehicle (EV) range enhancement, making new strides in aerodynamics or helping to advance safety assets that may prove to be a significant marketing tool.

An example of the caution typical of such facilities recently came from a spokesperson at Millbrook Proving Ground in the U.K. Asked about end-user expectations regarding technology, including the important subject of autonomous driving-induced motion sickness, the reply was, “Millbrook cannot provide an answer to this question.”

Propulsion systems facilities at Millbrook Proving Ground offer testing to real-world energy efficiency standards. (Millbrook)

We also wondered how Millbrook, together with other proving grounds, is changing to meet the new demands of AV development? The cautious answer: “By listening to the needs of the customer base and maintaining a constant dialogue in the run-up to testing. If new resources are needed, as long as there is a business need, these will be looked at.” And are those resources needed? The guarded reply? “Yes. The exact definition of these depends on the needs of the customer.”

These ultra-cautious ripostes demonstrate the difficult position in which independent proving grounds must operate, fully aware that they have multiple clients who are utter commercial enemies in the marketplace. However, in a one-on-one interview with SAE’s Autonomous Vehicle Engineering, Phil Stones, Millbrook’s Chief Engineer, was able to broadly discuss the new importance of proving grounds without giving away any secrets.

The Autonomous Village at Millbrook Proving Ground has six purpose-built workshops to support automated-vehicle development and research. (Millbrook)

Test facility diversity

“Compared to 10 years ago, the automotive world has become more financially focused in the changing technical and commercial times, with now more need than ever to spend capital in core product rather than test facilities,” Stones said. Those in-house facilities had become increasingly expensive, with so much detail now required. “And there is the matter of diversity; today’s cars are considerably more complex,” Stones added, stressing that every aspect of measurement now is far greater because regulations and customers demand so much.

Phil Stones, Millbrook’s Chief Engineer. (Millbrook)

“Emissions, crash safety, infotainment, NVH – the bar is getting higher and higher, therefore more capability is required,” Stones said. “So in terms of value, it is better for OEMs to outsource; that is where independent proving grounds like Millbrook can provide impartial, unbiased testing capability to fit the requirements of those OEMs and with Tier 1 and 2 suppliers. We can take away the capital burden and give economies of scale to what would otherwise be low-utilized assets.”

Autonomous-vehicle (AV) development and its associated technology is an increasingly significant element of proving-grounds work. At Millbrook, an “autonomous village” recently opened to address connected and autonomous development and testing. It includes six workshops to support mechanical integration and software advances ranging from passenger vehicles to buses.

The autonomous village facilitates the ability to carry out mechanical work, download and process data and run a vehicle directly on to Millbrook’s 70 km (44 miles) of secure test tracks, which has a private 5G-enabled mobile network with supporting physical and virtual infrastructure. Virtual data generated at Millbrook can be used to create tailored simulations, all helping to speed social acceptance of AVs.

Stones is cautious regarding a timeline for new-technology acceptance: “It still takes about three years to develop a new car; that vehicle typically has a six-year life, so we could be talking many years before reaching high-volume EV sales. However, a lot hinges on market incentives and consumer pull to what this timeframe really is.” Does that mean OEMs continue to invest in internal-combustion propulsion R&D and testing at external proving grounds? “Yes,” Stones confirmed. “There is no choice if they don’t want to write off all product plans.” He said that plug-in hybrid-electric vehicles need a fully vetted ICE driveline and there are range extenders to consider.

“Euro 7 [emissions regulations] will come at some point,” he added, “and it’s a certainty we will not be 100% electric at that time, so ICE development can’t stop now. We will probably reach Euro 8 and there has to be a glide path which is aligned to infrastructure and social requirements. Does a pure electric vehicle make full sense for all? Or is it a range extender we will need, or even hydrogen? Five years ago, you would not have bet on diesel sales plummeting in 2019, so we need an open, ideally flexible solution view for the future.”

Hydrogen’s mobility future

Although battery-based electrification increasingly dominates the powertrain R&D scene, hydrogen fuel-cell technology may be gaining in significance in Europe. Could it soon become a future speciality for proving grounds’ programs? “It does seem to have quickly returned to the agenda,” Stones stated. “Throughout my career, it has always been 15 years away. But now its opportunity to compete in the propulsion portfolio is greater than ever.”

Stones noted that for use with fuel cells, hydrogen infrastructure is still a problem for the mass passenger car market, although for the heavy-duty (commercial vehicle) and bus sectors operating out of depots (fixed bases) it makes more sense. “Certainly we are going through an energy change, not just automotive but the whole sector,” he added. Although the likelihood of hydrogen becoming a transportation fuel for the auto industry may be more positive than it was a decade or more ago, in large-scale production terms, Stones said he believes industry still is not thinking about it “in joined-up terms.”

It may be currently investing in a new heavy-duty vehicle test facility that supports hydrogen vehicles, but hydrogen is not high on Millbrook’s immediate agenda, with more focus currently on battery and e-machine testing. A comprehensive Battery Test Facility was opened in fall 2019 in the U.K. that will complement Millbrook’s newest facility in California, which is supporting EV driveline development.

Millbrook’s President, Alex Burns (former CEO of Williams F1 team and who established Williams Advanced Engineering), said: “We have identified California as a key market due to the number of EV powertrain developers and engineers based in the area. U.S.-headquartered OEMs, established European and Japanese brands and a number of new start-ups from China are choosing to develop EVs on the West Coast.”

In the UK, Millbrook also has a 4WD (2WD-capable) powertrain test bench. “This facility was designed to allow the accelerated and accurate development of ICE, hybrid and EVs in the areas of emission, fuel economy, performance and vehicle driveline control systems,” explained Stones. Its capability includes supercars and race cars. The facility has the capacity to cater for engine outputs in excess of 1,200 hp (900 kW), and can facilitate the development of launch strategies, traction control, torque vectoring, emissions, fuel consumption and hybrid control strategies.

Like other proving grounds, Millbrook’s raison d’être is to offer a confidential, financially attractive engineering and general test capability that independently proves (and sometimes disproves) a product and its efficacy. Because everything in the auto industry eventually comes down to money, the world’s proving grounds can help resolve one of its most difficult, basic decisions. How fast do you invest in something new, or how long do you hedge your bets?