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A Hummer EV drives the outdoors test track at GM's winter test facility in Kapuskasing, Ont.Handout

The secret vehicles started arriving in November at General Motors’ winter test site near the airport in Kapuskasing, Ont. Everything is hidden behind a tall fence and the only way for an uninvited visitor to see inside would be with a drone camera.

But you’re not allowed to launch a drone within seven kilometres of an airstrip, “so that’s one positive of where our locale is,” says Joshua Walton, the operations manager for GM’s Cold Weather Development Centre. Another is that Kapuskasing is far away from pretty much everywhere, an eight-hour drive north of Toronto or a six-hour drive east of Thunder Bay, hidden in the forest that first gave the lumber town a reason for existence.

The main positive, however, is that it gets cold in Kapuskasing. Very, very cold, with plenty of snow. The lowest temperature recorded there was minus-53 degrees Celsius in 1965 and Walton says global warming hasn’t made much of a difference.

“Some of the coldest winters that we’ve seen in the last hundred years have been in the last five years,” he says, speaking over Zoom in November from his office where he has a sunlight-simulating SAD light on his desk. It was supplied by his wife, who is concerned about the lack of daylight at this time of year and the possibility of Seasonal Affective Disorder.

“We’ve had some very seriously cold weather – last year in particular was one of the more bitter ones. January and February, we didn’t have a day that was warmer than negative-30.”

Inside the garage at GM's Kapuskasing facility. The automaker uses the site to test vehicles that are still three-to-five years from production in a variety of cold weather conditions.Handout

That works well for Walton and the other 50 or so engineers and drivers who work at the northern proving grounds every winter. Vehicles that are still three-to-five years from production go through 12 weeks of rigorous cold-weather testing, and GM expects at least 30 of those 84 days to be no warmer than minus-30 degrees.

In that time, the vehicles will each be driven on the 3.6-kilometre test track for more than 12,000 kilometres at all hours of the day and night. Their doors will be slammed, heaters cranked and windows sealed – even their Bluetooth connections will be tested to make sure they work as well at 30 below as 30 above.

Sometimes, despite all the computer simulations in the milder weather of the design studios, faults are identified that need to be fixed. Ice build-up in a turbocharger unit might require a new layout, or maybe a glue that works well in France will not be so effective in Scandinavia.

Walton remembers an Opel test car from Europe that popped out its rear window when it was driven over a “twist ditch” at the Kapuskasing centre.

“We heard this very loud bang that sounded like somebody fired off a shotgun,” he says. “The urethane they had used in this particular application was not certified for extreme cold weather and it let go. It was a simple matter of going to a more robust urethane to hold that glass in. It was a good catch; if you go to production with something like that, it becomes a massive recall.”

The centre is also used for designing and calibrating better equipment for extreme cold. These days, engineers are working to develop improved batteries and storage units for electric vehicles, because lithium-ion batteries are frequently criticized for losing much of their power in climates far less frigid than Northern Ontario.

As well, charging speed slows considerably when the temperature drops below freezing, and engineers have plenty of cold days while they look for solutions. They have plenty of charging infrastructure, too. The site can pull up to 2.5 megawatts of electricity, which is enough to power about 1,500 northern homes, or pretty much the entire town.

A Cadillac Escalade is tested inside a cold box, where vehicles can be shut in and the temperature dropped to as low as minus-45 degrees.Handout

All manufacturers have test sites somewhere, but General Motors operates three major proving grounds for its vehicles and they’re all in North America: The main test site is in Michigan, close to Detroit, and there’s a hot-weather site in Arizona. A smaller site for cold-weather testing is leased in northern China, next to the Russian border, but every vehicle that GM makes is tested for winter resilience at the 272-acre facility in Kapuskasing.

The centre began in the late 1930s as a three-acre site for General Motors to test military hardware, but was expanded to its current size in 1973. Now, it includes laboratories and “cold boxes,” where vehicles can be shut in and the temperature dropped to as low as minus-45 degrees. The cars are wired and controlled and monitored by engineers from the comfort of their desks in the main building.

When the cold season ends sometime around early May, most of the staff return to their research and driving jobs in the south, but Walton stays in Kapuskasing to manage the place. He says he loves it there, close to the wilderness and hunting and fishing. And besides, the buildings and the track need maintenance, and they’re a reminder of the winter weather that will inevitably return in just a few short months.