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Tire Safety is Targeted at New Test Lab in Virginia

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author photo by Autotrader August 2010

Just as the movie Jaws made Americans afraid to go in the water in the summer of 1975, so the Ford Explorer/Firestone tire scare a quarter-century later made drivers wary of their own cars. Filmgoers eyed dark waters suspiciously and drivers studied the black sidewalls and checked tire pressures before each drive.

But Virginia Tech has announced the construction of the world's most-advanced tire testing facility, a laboratory that will give tire makers the ability to test under more realistic conditions. This will aid in the detection of the kinds of problems that contributed to the failure of Firestone ATX tires on Explorers a decade ago, according to Tom Dingus, director of the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute.

General Motors is partnering with Virginia Tech, contributing $5 million to the $14 million project. Eleven million dollars of the money is going to the two-year construction of the tire-testing machine itself, a high-speed device that will be the first of its kind in the world.

While today's tire testers run at low speeds, forcing tire makers to extrapolate the test results to real-world speeds and conditions, the new Virginia Tech tire lab's machine will be able to run at speeds up to 180 mph, Dingus said. Older test equipment tops out at speeds as low as 10 mph, he said.

"The problem with tires is that they are non-linear so it is a very difficult extrapolation," explained Dingus. "This will be the first machine you don't have to extrapolate much, if at all."

"We will see a significantly improved ability to put this tire on a test stand and measure the forces and the moments," agreed Larry Fletcher, director of vehicle dynamics with responsibility for ride, handling, braking, steering, and traction at General Motors.

The goal of the test lab is to help detect potential flaws before tires go into production, preventing future tire scares. But in the event of a suspected problem, government investigators will be able to use the lab's test equipment to more quickly pinpoint potential problems with the tires in question.

This improved physical testing will have the additional benefit of improving virtual testing by improving the fidelity of computer models. "Understanding the tire physics at all levels of emergency handling enables us to develop a better computer aided model," said Fletcher.

Additionally, rather than locating the tire test lab at Virginia Tech's Blacksburg, Va. campus, it will be at Virginia International Raceway, outside Danville, Va. in the south-central part of the state. Being at the racetrack provides the additional benefit that after tires' traits are measured on the machine, they can be verified by test drivers on track to further corroborate test results from computer modeling and physical tests on the machine.

This will also facilitate use of the lab by racing teams and tire companies developing race rubber. The economically depressed area will benefit from the location of about 90 employees at the lab, with another 90 or so jobs in the community supporting these workers. The lab should begin testing in 2012. But that was a different disaster movie.

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Tire Safety is Targeted at New Test Lab in Virginia - Autotrader