It's hard to believe that more than a decade has passed since General Motors (GM) became a long-term tenant at U.S. Army Yuma Proving Ground (YPG).
Today, many Yuma residents can boast of seeing camouflaged test cars with manufacturer's license plates on the public streets in and around town. Anyone who has driven a General Motors (GM) vehicle in North America manufactured in the last 10 years owes their vehicle's reliability in extreme conditions to testing undertaken by GM's engineers at their Desert Proving Ground (DPG) located within the vast ranges of YPG.
The genesis of the facility lies in the early 1990s, just after the first Gulf War. Though YPG was the Army's premier hot weather test site, it lacked a sufficiently specialized facility to conduct continuous high speed testing on paved roads. The Department of Defense (DoD) recognized the need, but the high cost of constructing the facility was prohibitive at a time when efforts to balance the federal budget squeezed military budgets.
In response to this, a legal device called Enhanced Use Lease (EUL) was developed to allow the military to lease government property to private sector entities whose business was relevant to military needs, with the provision that the Army would be allowed to utilize the private facilities. Simultaneously, GM was interested in relocating from its antiquated hot weather test track in Mesa, Ariz. An isolated state-of-the-art complex when it opened in 1953, by the middle of the last decade the Mesa facility was located on prime land in one of the hottest real estate markets in the United States and severely encroached upon by a half century of relentless urban development.
"The hot weather at YPG is ideal--it's the sunniest spot in the world," said James Schmidt, business manager of GM's DPG. "We were looking at various places in Arizona, but none of the others met our needs."
Aside from the long-term lease and the opportunity to use YPG facilities, GM was also attracted to the unique means of protecting their competitive advantage that the partnership provided: Locating on a secure Army installation with 2,000 square miles of restricted airspace above it eliminated security concerns that had existed in Mesa, where urban encroachment gave people the opportunity to view new vehicles from the windows of houses overlooking the test track. The Army and GM inked a 50-year lease with an option for an additional 50 years at YPG in 2007. In the 10 years since it opened in June 2009, the facility and partnership with the Army has met all of the company's expectations.
"It's been very good overall," said Schmidt. "With two large organizations you always have concern with bureaucracy, but anything that has come up, both sides have been very willing to come together and work on any issues there are."
YPG personnel have also found the relationship to be fruitful and productive. "All in all, the relationship has been stellar throughout the years," said Rob Fillinger, a test officer in YPG's Combat and Automotive Systems Division. "They have always been very accommodating in supporting our test needs."
As part of the EUL agreement, GM funded the construction of a four and one-half mile high speed paved oval road course specifically designed to accommodate the heaviest vehicles in the Army inventory. Yet YPG testers have found the most useful piece of infrastructure to be one GM uses to test ordinary civilian vehicles.
"The most important part of that facility we've used over the years is the vehicle dynamics pad," said Fillinger. "Having access to that large area for test maneuvers is a huge plus for us."
The 1,000-by-1,000 foot vehicle dynamics pad, a flat, unmarked swath of asphalt in which the depth of the asphalt throughout varies by less than the width of five sheets of paper. Testers evaluate vehicle handling on this pad by negotiating an orange cone slalom, then driving fast through a 'J' turn, a sharply banking horseshoe curve that opens onto the wide asphalt. Surrounding all of this is the three and one-half mile-long circular track to accommodate high-speed testing.
"The normal speed for high speed testing is 120 miles per hour for drivers in the upper lane," said Schmidt. "Our drivers go through advanced driver training with our traffic safety group. If they don't meet certain qualifications after going through the course, they cannot drive."
GM DPG will be in its current location for at least 40 more years, with the option to renew for 50 additional years beyond that. As such, the facility may well grow in the years to come.
"As we move toward more electrification of vehicles and more driverless vehicles, it may require additional facilities to accommodate that testing," said Schmidt.