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The Coldest Test Track in the US, and Why You're Safer Because of It

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On: Mon, Jan 27, 2014 at 11:22AM | By: Bill Wilson

The Coldest Test Track in the US, and Why You're Safer Because of It

The next time you set out on a winter’s drive, you might want to give some thought to the tiny town of Baudette, MN, population 1100. Why? Because chances are that many of the cold weather features in your vehicle were tested in this icy little hamlet just below the Canadian border.

Baudette is home to Automotive Enviro-Testing (AET). Founded by Larry Larson in 1993, the facility occupies 820 acres that formerly housed an Air Force base. Today the location is used to put cars and trucks through torturous tests, in order to make sure they have what it takes to get drivers through the cold season. Clients include Goodyear and other tire makers, along with auto manufacturers based in the US and abroad.

Baudette is an ideal location for this purpose. In January, temperatures can plunge to -50 degrees, cold enough to make structural steel turn brittle. During the winter, AET becomes a world unto itself, with workers and clients living in on-site lodges, eating in the company cafeteria, and enjoying perks like racquetball, weight rooms, and saunas.

The heart of the facility is its collection of 18 driving courses, each designed to subject vehicles to a different set of extreme conditions. For example, Course # 1 features a mix of hard and loosely packed snow, with ice on the inside lane. Course # 6, on the other hand, is known as the “slush pool” and is covered with a mushy ice/cold water mix, similar to the texture of a snow cone.

If that doesn’t sound challenging enough, Course # 7 is littered with pot holes that test vehicles must bounce their way through, in order to prove the quality of their shocks and suspension systems. Other courses have ice-covered hills, long frozen grades, and bumpy, treacherous log-covered roads. Most are lit at night, to allow testing when the temperatures at their worst.

AET also has three artificial structures known as “cold cells.” Controlled by massive refrigeration units, technicians can create frigid conditions year-round, enabling workers to conduct their testing even during the height of summer.

AET clients have a keen interest in keeping the data gained from these tests secret from their competitors. AET protects their interests with chain-link fencing, electronic security systems, and armed guards. But, while the results from these efforts are confidential, the benefits to the driving public, in terms of safety, performance, and peace of mind, are clear. Keep that in mind the next time the mercury drops while you’re behind the wheel.

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