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Camber Ridge is a new tyre testing facility set to open in 2016 in North Carolina, US. It aims to offer tyre manufacturers, vehicle OEMs and Tier 1’s the opportunity to measure the dynamic properties of tyres in an environment that blends testing on real road surface with the controlled conditions found in development laboratories. Matthew Beecham spoke to Camber Ridge’s CEO, Dr James F Cuttino, about the centre and its plans.

We understand that Camber Ridge is creating an indoor test track for tyre testing. Can you explain a little more about your plans?

Both car manufacturers and tyre manufacturers know that testing tyres on real roads is necessary because that’s where tyres are ultimately put into service and expected to perform. However, this testing can be expensive and time consuming. There are other challenges too, such as getting accurate and repeatable test data. This has led to more simulation being relied upon for tyre and vehicle developments. But simulated results are only as good as the data put into the models, something that is an issue for engineers today. Tyres are a special challenge in this regard.

Typically, the simulation of tyre performance requires construction of small batches of prototype tyres. These are built and manufacturers measure them on flat belt machines – in effect, a steel belt that is coated with a sandpaper grit surface is run around two drums. Or in the case of rolling resistance and some other measures, tyres are run directly on large round drums. These methods of testing help engineers quantify the forces produced by a tyre during cornering, braking and so on, and this can certainly be used to feed simulation models. But there are gaps between flat belt machine and drum characterisations and on-road performance, and that is what we are looking to address.

How will you do this?

To do this, our new test facility will contain a paved half-mile oval track – all indoors. We won’t have cars driving on this track but instead we’ll have special carriages that will be propelled along a precision rail system. Some people liken it to a roller coaster – and actually the science behind it is not too far away from that. We plan to have both and tarmac and control surfaces and the ability to offer wet and dry running.

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Longer term plans will see the ability to run on snow and ice and other substrates, but these will follow sometime after our opening in Q3 of 2016. Standing back and looking at all this, we have embarked upon the creation of the most advanced tyre characterisation facility in the world, what is perhaps the biggest advancement in tyre characterisation in the past 50 years. And again, the aim is to fill in the gaps in the understanding of tyre/surface interactions on real surfaces whilst acquiring accurate and repeatable data.

Is this concept of indoor track testing something that customers have been asking for?

Absolutely. We were first approached by an OEM with this need several years ago. We assembled an advisory group made up of experts in the automotive, military and truck/bus markets as well as the tyre industry, and they concurred – new technology was badly needed. It won’t surprise you that the potential gains in development time and costs are at the heart of this request. The rise of new safety systems such as active braking as well large gains in vehicle performance and new regulatory mandates mean that OEMs and tyre manufacturers have experienced steep rises in development costs. They want to lower those costs and ensure the work undergone generates good data. We know we can help with that.

Do you think you will replace the flat-bed testing you described?

No, that’s not our aim. We acknowledge the usefulness of that information and expect it to remain a mainstay in the tyre development process. However, we will be adding something extra to the mix, providing new ways to understand tyre behaviour. This may lead to better vehicle dynamics, fuel economy or lower noise and any number of practical improvements. Take the case of rolling resistance. Quantifying tyre performance on round drum machines is standard practice in the industry, and will continue to be so. But converting this information into actual fuel consumption is problematic since surface texture and curvature, operating speeds and loads must all be considered. This is where we can help. By being able to run and measure tyres up to 70 mph on actual paved surfaces we can provide new and useful insights. Today’s standard tyre measurements are repeatable but we don’t think they are always accurate. We will be able to generate good data with more direct correlation to real service performance.

What other tests do you think customers will want?

When we first started this project, our thoughts were primarily focussed on satisfying the requirements for special research projects and low volume development testing. Now we are creating something much bigger, with a broader application base. Our first test carriage, called Genesis, is able to test tyres up to 32 inches in size, and apply controlled loads and displacements over a large range. Advanced controls and instrumentation will allow us to cover a range of test scenarios, from standard ISO and SAE protocols, to scripted force and moment characterisations, to flat-running rolling resistance assessments, to new tests such as the replication of actual vehicle suspension force and displacement characteristics. For the latter, this means the carriage will be manipulating the tyre and measuring it in real time. If we take this to the next logical level, we could at some point, connect human drivers through simulation but using real tyres, thus allowing the testing of real tyres on virtual cars. We are, of course, very excited by all the possibilities this might bring.

You have announced $60m investment. Is this from the tyre or car makers?

No. Our funding has come from private sources such as Teton Capital, our primary backer. Teton [Capital] is a private equity business with a strong track record of investing in automotive-related industries. We decided on this direction because it means that, unlike many other tyre testing labs, we are truly independent. Technically speaking, this means we are free to push our technologies in new directions without the usual pressures. Commercially speaking, this means easier scheduling and accessibility for our customers.

With funding in place, what other challenges do you face?

The remainder of this interview is available on just-auto’s QUBE Global light vehicle OE tyres market- forecasts to 2030