Kenbuchi – Mazda’s testing facility with real-world conditions

Cars are sold all over the world and the conditions they are used in vary greatly. In markets in the tropical areas, high temperatures and high humidity are typical while in the upper latitudes, it’s the opposite with freezing conditions, very low temperatures and ice on the roads. Whatever the conditions and temperatures, the cars must run well and as it’s impractical to design cars for different climatic conditions, certain areas are engineered to suit the conditions. For example, radiators will be different for cars sold in Canada compared to those sold in Malaysia because the latter has higher ambient temperatures all year round. Air-conditioning is important in the tropics but heating is more important in Russia.

In order to carry out testing in different climatic conditions, the larger carmakers use chambers that can create such conditions. Even wind tunnels can be used to create snow storms, providing engineers with data at anytime of the year instead of having to wait for Mother Nature to provide the conditions. And of course, as powerful supercomputers became available, it was also possible to simulate any type of condition and study the effects on materials and parts.

However, even with all the testing in climatic chambers, real-world testing is still important because of the variables. There may be unusual conditions which the engineers have not thought of which are only found in Alaska or certain rainy conditions that are so severe that windscreen wipers can’t work properly. So prototypes (usually camouflaged) have to be driven in the real world to get feedback from driving in actual conditions.

Wind tunnel testing is just the start and eventually, prototypes have to be driven in real-world conditions (below).

Many carmakers usually send their prototypes to places like Australia, Africa or the regions of the Arctic Circle to do real-world testing in extreme conditions. Even Proton used to send prototypes to the north of Scandinavia when it was developing models that were to be sold in Europe.

Mazda has 4 proving grounds in Japan and also does testing in Arizona, USA at a Ford-owned facility.

Like other carmakers, Mazda has tried to ensure that its vehicles are suitable for every type of climate and road condition since its products are sold all over the world. In the 1980s, it was one of the first companies to reproduce the surfaces of roads from many different countries in an area (referred to as ‘Roads of the World’ at one time) within its Miyoshi Proving Grounds near Hiroshima, its home city. Driving over such surfaces provides engineers with a better understanding of the effects of cobblestone roads, for example, without having to send prototypes to Europe (although they do that too nowadays). The company has other proving grounds too but the surfaces in these facilities are usually artifically-created ‘perfect’ ones such as low-friction surfaces for testing tyres and stability control systems.

In order to get truly real-world conditions – at least for low-temperature conditions – Mazda did something that no one else has done. It established proving grounds in an area in Hokkaido, the northernmost island in Japan, which are only used during the winter months of the year. Located at Kenbuchi, 175 kms north of the main city of Sapporo, the facility is unique in that Mazda did not actually build it like a top-secret test course. Other than during the few months in winter, the area is open to the public who can use the roads to travel on.

The facility was established in 1987 as an informal testing area but in 1990, Mazda asked the Kenbuchi town council if it could rent the forest area covering about 470 hectares (about 1,160 acres) for its testing activities. As traffic movement is reduced during the winter months because of the heavy snowfall, the town council didn’t have any issues with closing off the area and they could also get some extra revenue.

So for the past 31 years, Mazda engineers have made annual visits to Kenbuchi (layout shown above) to test not just new models in the extreme conditions but also to evaluate and develop safety systems such as i-ACTIV AWD – the new-generation all-wheel drive system – and G-Vectoring Control (GVC), as well as other technologies. The vehicles are sent by ship from Hiroshima or engineers may sometimes drive the 2,000 kms from Mazda’s home city, a journey which takes about 2 days. Incidentally, there’s also another Mazda-owned test course (smaller in area than Kenbuchi) at the other end of Hokkaido near Kasai which is a permanent facility where more advanced and high-speed testing is done.

Nakasatsunai Test Course near Kasai, Hokkaido

Occasionally, Japanese media are also taken to the Kenbuchi facility to experience new models or technologies and this year, for the first time, Mazda invited media from ASEAN countries to Kenbuchi as well. And in typical Japanese fashion, Mazda staff thank the people of the town by inviting local residents to a community event at the grounds every year.

During the rest of the year, the area is open to the public and the only evidence of it being a Mazda facility are a few signboards and buildings that are locked up. When winter comes, barriers are set up at the few entry points and some of the roads are blocked off by snow that is not removed, creating natural barriers. There’s no fencing like in other test courses but it is unlikely that the public will care to wander around in the freezing cold. Even the animals in the forest hibernate and the people at the facility say they have foxes dropping by and have found evidence of bears in the area.

The difference in conditions between summer (left) and winter (right).
The roads around the facility are actually public roads that go through a forest area. During a few months in winter, they are closed to the public when Mazda has its activities.

Although to most people, winter conditions are the same every year, where vehicle testing is concerned, the conditions must be kept as identical as possible all the time so that meaningful comparisons can be made. For example, the nature of the ice and snow has to be the same and from what we were told, the conditions in the past used to be more consistent with temperatures consistently falling to -20 and -30 degrees C. However, with the effects of increasing climate change during the past decade, less snow seems to have been falling and maintaining the surfaces in the same condition every day has been a challenge. There’s a close watch on temperatures throughout the day and when it becomes ‘warmer’ than -2 degrees C., the driving tests are suspended.

The snow and ice also cause damage to the roads so they have to be regularly repaired but this is usually done during the summer months. Nevertheless, it is also such conditions that Mazda wants because they are the sort of real conditions drivers will encounter. While there are bulldozers and snow-ploughs to clear push snow aside daily, the slippery surfaces can be unpredictable and the effectiveness of safety systems becomes crucial in avoiding accidents.

These machines are used daily to clear the roads of snow.

While the main work at Kenbuchi is to test vehicles in winter conditions, the slippery low-friction surfaces also make it easier to develop and test active safety systems that prevent skidding. In the ‘perfect’ conditions of most test tracks, speeds have to be high and the surface covered with water to create slippery conditions for evaluating systems like ABS, DSC, etc but on snow and ice, the tyres will lose their grip at even slow speeds and the car will go into a spin.

The risks are lower for the test-drivers but accidents can still happen because the surfaces are really very slippery. Once a car has lost traction – even if it has AWD – it can be very difficult to regain grip and the only thing is to hope you don’t hit something. The snowbanks are okay… except that there can be walls or a signpost hidden in them!

Other activities at the facility include testing of climate control systems, tyres, effects of extremely low temperatures on various parts, the performance of sensors (radar, laser and camera), and also advanced driver training for Mazda personnel.

Besides development of advanced systems like Mazda i-ACTIV AWD for the CX models, tyres and other systems like the heated seats and steering wheel are also tested at Kenbuchi.

The work done at Kenbuchi also helps Mazda engineers to ensure that every model’s driving character has jinba-ittai (the driver’s unity with the car), which is especially important in winter conditions when the driver must have a good feel of what is happening. The development of systems that provide safer driving in such extreme conditions also benefit us in Malaysia. We may not have snow and ice but the wet roads also reduce grip and the braking and handling tuned for winter conditions will still be very useful.

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[Chips Yap]