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Potholes, cobblestones and skidpads: Welcome to the Automotive Proving Grounds


We’ve all seen videos of automobile safety testing – most of them show airbags deploying to cushion crash test dummies as a car drives into a wall. But until this week, I’d never thought about the other, less spectacular-looking testing that car manufacturers conduct to make sure that our cars can stop before they hit that wall. Most of us spend our time on the road avoiding potholes, trying not to fishtail on wet roads and driving far slower than 190km/hr – but as I read in this article from, safety-testing a car in risky conditions is all in a day’s work for an automotive proving ground test driver. 

Automotive proving grounds are test facilities built by car manufacturers – places where they can push their vehicles to the limit in order to maximize their safety and reliability. In the early days of car manufacturing, vehicle testing was conducted on public roads, alongside regular traffic. But as the car became more popular and roads grew more congested, car manufacturers needed somewhere else to put their new models through their paces.

General Motors opened the world’s first automobile proving grounds in 1924 near Milford, Michigan. The original proving grounds were situated on 1,125 acres and included a 6.4 km gravel loop and a straightaway. Today, their proving grounds covers 4,000 acres and has several facilities, include the “Black Lake”, a pad of blacktop that can be spritzed with water and used to test vehicle dynamics. Here’s what the facility looks like today, from the air:

These days, most car manufacturers have their own proving grounds, designed to simulate every possible type of terrain you might encounter while driving. Test drivers are trained in advanced driving skills before tackling a wicked mix of terrains, conditions and speeds, all with the aim of compressing a lifetime’s worth of car abuse into just a few months. Gravel roads, skid pads and extreme off-road courses are a few of the terrains you’d find on any automotive proving ground. Ford recently laid down 50 miles of test tracks in their Lommel Proving Grounds in Belgium, dedicated to simulating potholes from 25 countries around the world – everything from the cobblestone streets of France to rutted intersections in China. 

These cars are rode hard and put away wet – literally, as driving through water helps to test the rust proofing on a vehicle’s undercarriage. Car manufacturers use the drivers’ feedback and their own analysis to improve their designs.

This hilarious, action-movie-trailer-style video from Volvo’s proving grounds in Hällered, Sweden highlights some of the different tests and terrains the vehicles – and test drivers – are subjected to in the name of car safety.

Compare that Volvo video with this footage about automotive proving grounds from the 1950s. Testing back then was more rudimentary but no less thorough!

The job of test driving looks like a lot of fun – but according to Kia test driver Howard Edmond, driving in rough conditions for 7 hours a day, 5 days a week can be a little monotonous – and can also be hard on the posterior.

Have you ever visited an automotive proving ground? Do you think test driving would be a good job? Let us know in the comments!

- Rose R.


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Sandy FB

I imagine test drivers keep physiotherapists and chiropractors well fed. Thank goodness someone wants to do this job!
Loved the historical info in this article and the pic from the 1950's. Brought back great memories of drive ins and smooching in the back seat!

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