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A Road Built to Be Bad

By February 23, 2016 No Comments

Ford intentionally built a very nasty stretch of pavement to test vehicles under pothole conditions. It’s a success – but is that a good thing?

This just in from the Department of Irony: Ford Motor Company built a road that is intentionally potholed. What’s more, it’s 50 miles in length and actually is designed to replicate how cars meet carnage from bad pavement in 25 different countries.

The purposefully bad road also has its own gigantic hairdryer.

The official name of the road is the Lommel Proving Ground, and it is located in Lommel, Belgium, midway between Ford of Europe’s development centers and production plants in Germany and the United Kingdom. It’s where cars are tested under various trying conditions, which include cobblestone streets still common in parts of Europe, rutted avenues found in China, and with speed bumps that evidently are used extensively in Brazil.

The “hairdryer” is a jet-powered blower system (also used at airports) to remove ice and snow when the Lommel track needs drier conditions for a test. Parts of the track include freshwater and saltwater pools to replicate watery conditions. The facility was first built in the 1960s and has been expanded over the decades since. From above, the serpentine course looks like a maze of curves and straightaways within a roughly oval-outline area. The public is not permitted within its confines for safety and competitive reasons.

To American drivers, one might ask why the company goes to such lengths to replicate what they encounter daily on trips to work, shops and schools. According to AASHTO (the American Association of State Highway Transportation Officers), more than 28 percent of the major urban roads (Interstates, freeways and arterial routes) have pavement that is in “substandard condition and provides an unacceptably rough ride to motorists” (as reported in Bumpy Roads Ahead: American’s Roughest Rides and Strategies to Make our Roads Smoother, July 2015). Accounting for major urban and rural roads, AASHTO says only 42 percent of roads in the U.S. are in good condition.

What is learned at Ford’s Lommel Proving Ground? Skilled test drivers operate cars that contain seismology-inspired equipment that monitors the reaction of vehicles’ suspension system and other components. Data from the tests are fed back to car designers and engineers to develop vehicles that can better handle the jarring effects of uneven pavement. Reportedly one model, the Fusion V6 Sport sedan, is equipped with a computer-controlled shock absorber system that counteracts the effects of rough roads. According to RoadAndTrack.com, “Fusion’s adaptive dampers read road conditions every two milliseconds and when it detects the edge of a pothole, it automatically stiffens the particular wheel’s damper to its stiffest setting. Effectively, it allows the Fusion to skip over potholes.” The magazine provides a video of this in action, and remarks that “in practice and visually, it’s fairly incredible.”

The good news then is that cars are being made to be more resilient. The bad news, however, might be that poor pavement and gaping potholes are now reaching a point of acceptance. Which is of little value to all other vehicles that still suffer expensive and dangerous bumps from potholes found just about everywhere.