Simon Poole

Simon Poole

Pro² Automotive Engineering supplies professional driver services to the automotive industry. Here, Matthew Beecham talked with the company's MD, Simon Poole.  A former investment banker and amateur racing driver, Poole set up Pro² in 2007 after winning a contract to supply Lotus with instructors for its permanent customer driving experience in Hethel, UK. The business has since blossomed to the point where its services are proving particularly popular in countries where the automotive engineering process is less developed.

What are the challenges with developing vehicle dynamics for cars built for emerging markets?

In rapidly advancing countries such as India, China, Korea and Brazil, there is a wealth of highly trained engineers who can bring theoretical vehicle dynamics knowledge. There is a strong culture of education, and engineering is a respected profession. The problem is that vehicle development is largely objective and mostly CAD-based. Engineers have very little practical experience of ride and handling, steering or hard braking for example, which puts them at a disadvantage compared to their more established competitors.

This has been fine up until very recently where these OEMs have been developing cars for their home markets and driving conditions. The local need is much less demanding; transportation is more basic and based on practicality; the roads are too busy to enjoy the vehicle in the same way as we do in the West. However, as increasingly cars are being developed and manufactured in these markets for overseas customers OEMs need to bring in the necessary knowledge from outside.

Pro² is all about giving engineers the skills to put their engineering prowess and desk simulations into practice; to accelerate the understanding of the physical process of developing a new car, from designing NVH tests to appraising ergonomics for interior car design and articulating and tweaking steering torque.

How do you go about delivering the training?

Pro² has a range of vehicle dynamics courses for engineers, which can either be conducted at the customer's facility or at an independent test track. From basic level training to advanced coaching on very targeted areas of the vehicle, each programme is highly practical (around 90 per cent is driving) and participants will get close to the limit of the test vehicles' handling. Importantly, engineer progress, in terms of consistently demonstrated improvement in driving skills and practical understanding, is measured by our professional drivers. This makes a Pro² training event an integral part of ongoing engineer assessment.

An introductory course would start with the basics of test driving such as objectives, outcome and measurement. We then teach weight transfer, steering input, braking, observation and cornering techniques, driver inputs and the generation of pitch, roll and yaw, understeer/oversteer, braking exercises (ABS and non-ABS techniques), and electronic safety programmes. We end with sessions on high performance driving and subjective evaluation techniques - how to set mental benchmarks, scoring systems and how to judge customer noticeability.

We deliver our subjective, intensive vehicle evaluation skills courses to home-grown engineers in their own countries, on local roads.

If the training is for non-home markets, why do you conduct the training in the emerging country?

It has been the approach of some OEMs to fly their engineers over to the UK or Germany for such training but we disagree with this. Even though the car may be designed for running around Paris, if it is going to be developed at a proving ground in India, then the training for those engineers needs to be in India where the conditions are most appropriate to where the engineers will work. We want to be able to replicate specific local conditions such as heat, road standards, tyre compounds and vehicle set up.

We can train using manufacturer specific vehicles and local support (in case of mechanical breakdown for example), something that may not be easy or cheap to achieve in a different country. The cost of staying at home is also an advantage of course. The saving on venue hire and travel expenses is better diverted to increasing the ratio of trainer to engineer and allowing greater number of engineers to be trained.

How easy is it to create a good vehicle dynamics engineer?

The best vehicle dynamics engineers know how to subjectively assess a car by pushing it to the limit - and beyond - and safely recover. They'll have learned how to keep enough mental bandwidth in reserve to simultaneously detect and articulate complex engineering features. And they must be able to repeat the process smoothly, confidently and consistently so the driving element is never the variable.

We train OEM vehicle dynamics engineers and test drivers to an extreme level of sensitivity to the car's 'feel'.

We impart our instructors' practical skills, developed over many years driving in competitive motorsport, or from former careers in dynamics engineering, where high performance driving skills and an understanding of vehicle handling are tested in the most high pressure environments. We test for engineer feedback and find out whether they helped develop a race car. We rigorously screen for articulate, sensitive people who are natural teachers.

Is this not just a problem for emerging markets then?

Absolutely not. We believe established OEMs need to train up more engineers in dynamic driving. I have seen too many cases of OEMs where the direction of a vehicle's dynamics hangs entirely on the objective view of one trusted test driver or chief engineer. But what if they are not around? What if they get it wrong? What if the OEM wants something completely different for a new car? In these times of risk aversion and favouring scientific processes, subjectivity is really important. Without a body of trained engineers, with the same techniques for understanding vehicle dynamics and all speaking the same language, it is immensely difficult to replicate the chief engineer's experience quickly and efficiently.

What is the hardest skill to learn?

For engineers, the hardest skill to acquire so late in life (compared to professional racing drivers) is driving on the limit, while taking in and feeding back vital information about a car's characteristics. This is augmented when it comes to engineers in India, for example. Generally, people who have not grown up around European roads are very uncomfortable with on-the-limit handling and where the car is moving around. They are just not used to it. In the West, it is your right of passage as a young person to experiment with a car. In India, you just don't get the chance. The country is so densely populated you can't find anywhere where there aren't people in the way. So we have to use test tracks which emulate foreign roads and then teach the driving skills.

The roads are clearly better in the West than they are in those BRIC countries.  How does that feed through to the customer in terms of driving dynamics?

The remainder of this interview is available on just-auto's QUBE research service