FEB 3, 2017
IN A REMOTE TOWN IN EASTERN CANADA, WHERE TEMPERATURES REGULARLY FALL TO MINUS 40 DEGREES CELSIUS AND THE PINE-RIDDLED LANDSCAPE IS BLANKETED IN SNOW, A GROUP OF ENGINEERS SPENDS MONTHS TESTING LEXUS PRODUCTION VEHICLES FOR MANUFACTURING MISSTEPS AND REAL-WORLD VULNERABILITIES. GUY DIMOND VISITS WITH LEXUS’ VEHICLE ENVIRONMENT AND DURABILITY EVALUATION DIVISION.
The small town of Timmins, in Ontario, Canada, has one famous export: Shania Twain. The best-selling singer-songwriter grew up here, and left as soon as she could. Which is hardly surprising. Timmins is remote. Winter temperatures typically flutter between minus 10 and minus 40 degrees Celsius. No one would stay in a place this cold without a really good reason.
That reason was gold. The town was settled in the wake of a rush at the start of the 20th century, and it stays in business because the mines still do good trade. But for Lexus, it’s not the gold that’s the attraction. It’s the cold.
Lexus sells a lot of cars to people living in places like Timmins. But most of the brand’s design and development work is carried out near Nagoya, in Japan, which has hot summers and cool winters. To simulate the colder climates experienced by many of its clients, Lexus built its main road-test circuits on Japan’s northernmost island, Hokkaido. The site is surrounded by ski resorts. Lexus teams are accustomed to dealing with snow.
But snow is only one factor of a cold climate. Freeze-thaw cycles allow ice to build up where it’s not wanted, damaging wipers, penetrating door locks, freezing windows to the extent that they won’t open. Minor annoyances like this can make a car inoperable if the temperature is minus 20 degrees Celsius, which is why Lexus built a cold test site here. This is part of what the Japanese call genchi genbutsu—literally, “go and see.” This is a place in which test center employees deal with frozen cars on a daily basis, often for months on end. Curiously, few local drivers have garages in which to park their cars; most people tend to leave them out on their driveways.
Different types of vibration are noted using Japanese phrases, such as the onomatopoeic gotsu gotsu (bumpy), and buru buru (shaky)
A recent tour of the site didn’t take long. There’s a huge, heated hangar here, filled with boxes of electronic equipment; some factory-style beige offices; a snow-covered parking garage; a road-test circuit, hidden from prying eyes by trees and a purpose-built berm, on which sits even more snow. Inside, the only decoration is a few photos on the walls, some from 1974, which is when the center opened. The early teams of test engineers consisted of a dozen or so people, and they were predominantly Japanese. The teams now include mostly North Americans, and consist of eight or so engineers, although only two were present on the Saturday of my visit: Ken Ziesemer, the manager of the Vehicle Environment and Durability Evaluation division; and Jim Shuker, his colleague and a principal technician. Neither is a local, nor even Canadian. Like the rest of Ziesemer’s team, they’re based in Phoenix, Arizona, where they test vehicles in warm conditions. They visit Timmins in pairs, like migratory ducks. As one pair leaves, another arrives. The winter season begins in November with cold tests in Fairbanks, Alaska; then, in January, when Alaska gets too cold for testing, the team migrates again to Timmins, where they stay until the end of February. On the day of my visit, a Saturday, Lexus engineers from a different team had taken the day off. At minus 10 degrees Celsius, it was too warm for them to cold-test powertrains.
Much of the test-driving here is done on the public roads around Timmins. Ziesemer and Shuker are both cautious, thoughtful men, traits common to many engineers. They work together using few words, a hallmark of a close working relationship that goes back 16 years. In the car, they listen for odd noises from the suspension or transmission, check for unusual braking, highlight anything else that might unnerve a driver or signal an issue. Longer drives might take a whole day or more. (A trip to Montréal and back will take more than 16 hours.) Different types of vibration are noted using Japanese phrases that can be learned and understood by Lexus engineers around the world, such as the onomatopoeic gotsu gotsu (bumpy), and buru buru (shaky). On the day of my visit, the pine- and birch-riddled landscape was covered in a deep layer of snow, but the sun was bright, the temperature relatively mild. On our drive, nothing untoward happened. No gotsu gotsu. No buru buru.
So Ziesemer took a Canadian-built Lexus RX F SPORT, one of a dozen cars currently on test, on a spin around the center’s test circuit. On a private track, the pace quickened to test sudden braking, swerving, acceleration and deceleration around sharp corners. Yet the SUV refused to misbehave. No slithering. No skidding. It was particularly impressive in an emergency stop, as the car glided smoothly to a halt, only a slight vibration noticeable from the antilock braking system. “It kind of takes the fun out,” Ziesemer says.
Then it was back to the mundane but vital daily tests on cars that sit parked outside in temperatures hovering around minus 20 degrees Celsius for weeks on end. A checklist covering dozens of moving parts is filled out, noting any issues: hatchback doors that don’t glide shut quickly enough, latches that stick. “Usually problems arise from water incursion,” Ziesemer says. “This car was washed yesterday, then left out to freeze.” Discoveries are fed back to the Lexus design team in Japan, in a process of continuous improvement. Ziesemer has worked for Lexus for 16 years, and he is clearly pleased that “even small suggestions and recommendations are acted on.”
I stepped over some electrical leads in the parking garage, snaking into car interiors, and wondered if these were prototype electric cars that Lexus is working on. “In this case, that’s electronic equipment monitoring parked car conditions,” Ziesemer says. “The equipment itself has to be heated and well insulated, as it’s so cold that LCD screens and the like can be affected. The electrical leads you saw on the way here, though, they work a bit like electric blankets. In this part of Canada, some people use plug-in electrical heaters to keep their engine blocks from freezing. You can get them as an extra when you order the car new from the dealer.”
We’d been standing outside for a quarter of an hour, but despite the impressively warm snorkel parka and insulated boots that had been issued to us, there was a sense of relief when we returned indoors. This happened to be the day that Ziesemer was packing up to return to the warmth of Arizona, leaving Shuker on his own for the rest of the day. “I don’t like the cold,” he admits. Timmins in deep winter has few attractions for anyone, but particularly not for a team accustomed to the Phoenix climate—around 40 degrees Celsius warmer in February. “I tried snowmobiling in minus 25 once,” Ziesemer says. “Never again.” In a few weeks’ time, the site would be dismantled, like Christmas decorations, and put into storage until the next winter test season. “I try and ensure that people on the team aren’t here too long,” Ziesemer says. “If I tried to make anyone come here for the whole two months, they’d quit their job.”
A checklist covering dozens of moving parts is filled out, noting any issues: hatchback doors that don’t glide shut quickly enough, latches that stick