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The long and winding road to automotive excellence Add to ...

With the increasing attention to everything from initial quality and reliability to emissions and fuel economy, it has become even more important to make sure new automobiles are fully developed right out of the box. You rarely hear the phrase "never buy a new car the first year" any more. In today's hyper-competitive market, consumers expect what they want - now.

This has placed increased emphasis on pre-production testing - whether it's by the vehicle manufacturer or one of the hundreds of suppliers that contribute parts and complete assemblies. It is imperative that "bugs" are worked out prior to delivery, not by the dealer after delivery, as used to be the case.

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The J.D. Power quality surveys have become the standard by which vehicles and manufacturers are judged. The number of problems reported per 100 vehicles when the program started 23 years ago was 175. Last year, the industry average approached the 110 mark despite the incredible increase in vehicle complexity.

Think about how difficult it is to ensure a vehicle performs as designed and expected. Most consumer products - a computer, dishwasher, camera or phone - live in a controlled environment, are protected from the elements and coddled to avoid getting wet, too hot or otherwise subjected to abuse.

An automobile is immensely more complicated, made from thousands of parts and expected to perform in all conditions - from the heat of the desert to frigid Arctic winters. And it has to do this for years with very little care or maintenance beyond changing fluids and rubber pieces such as wipers and tires. We have come to expect that when we spend tens of thousands of dollars on a vehicle it will reward with faithful service whether we take care of it or not.

By and large, this is possible. Of course, there are exceptions, but they are not the rule. Much of the credit for this initial and long-term reliability can be credited to extensive testing during initial design and development and through to and after production.

A recent visit to the world's largest climatic test facility showcased how extensive - and expensive - testing components and vehicles can be. The McKinley Climatic Laboratory at Elgin Air Force Base in Florida was originally developed for the United States Air Force and its primary role remains the environmental testing of military equipment.

But it is also rented out at $20,000-to-$30,000 a day to tire, vehicle and commercial airplane manufacturers among others. The giant main building can house the world's largest airplanes and it, along with four smaller associated test chambers, allow testing for everything from sand, snow, rain and fog ingestion to extreme temperatures - from minus-65 to 165 degrees Fahrenheit. Engineers can simulate blowing snow, choking sand storms, tropical conditions dripping with humidity and coastal conditions laced with corrosive salt spray.

Most car manufacturers have their own similar but smaller climatic chambers where vehicles and components can be subjected to temperature extremes and hot weather and winter testing facilities in southern and northern climates where this can be done in real-world operating conditions. Temperature extremes have adverse effects on pretty much any material - imagine the challenge when there are dozens of materials interacting with each in many cases, and assembled to extremely close tolerances whether that be inside and engine or where two dissimilar panels intersect.

At low temperatures, materials become hard and brittle and fluids become thick. At the other extreme, high temperatures cause issues with electronics and electric motors while fluids thin out. Different materials expand at different rates in heat and contract differently when cold. Tests are conducted to simulate temperatures of up to 160 degrees when vehicles are left in the sun in hot climates for extended periods.

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