Passing the test of time: Interview with Miguel Fragoso
The Millbrook testing facility is alive with the latest automotive technologies. Paul Fanning asks its managing director about its future.
Covering 700 acres of Bedfordshire countryside, Millbrook Proving Ground is one of Europe's leading locations for the development and demonstration of every type of land vehicle, from motorcycles and passenger cars to heavy commercial, military and off-road vehicles. Factor in that it is also used for extensive film, TV and commercial shoots (including the record-breaking Aston Martin stunt in 'Casino Royale') and you have a facility that must represent one of the most interesting working environments possible. Little wonder, then, that Millbrook's managing director Miguel Fragoso describes it as "a wonderful and exciting place to work".
But, as design analysis software becomes ever more sophisticated, what is the role of a testing facility such as Millbrook to the modern designer? Fragoso acknowledges that technology has undoubtedly changed the role of the facility, but is optimistic for the long term. "Eliminating physical testing is a vision that, as an engineer, it would be wonderful to achieve," he says. "However, I really don't think we'll get there in our lifetimes. There will still be a level of physical testing always required. You're only going to be able to predict so much."
In fact, Fragoso believes that the increasing sophistication of virtual analysis may actually increase the level of testing undertaken at the proving ground. He says: "As the technology grows, you are going to be able to do more and more with virtual testing and some elements of physical testing will be eliminated, but I believe there will always be an element of physical testing required. The good news for us is that we will benefit indirectly from the benefits that virtual testing brings in shortening the development cycle and in reducing the cost of developing the vehicle. We will find that, over time, manufacturers take much less time to get a vehicle from design to physical testing, which will actually mean that the volume of physical testing we do will be much more – albeit we may be doing less physical testing on each individual vehicle."
Clearly, one of the ways in which Millbrook is ensuring its longer-term success is by diversification into areas beyond what one might think of as the purely automotive. As well as its track facilities, Millbrook is home to some highly-sophisticated test laboratories whose expertise, as Fragoso is keen to make clear, can be applied to a range of areas, including emissions and component testing. "Anything on wheels is our core business," he says. "But beyond that, anything without wheels that shares technology with wheeled vehicles is also our technology…I don't want to suggest we have an infinite number of applications, but we are far, far more than just technology on wheels. Just to give you an indication, we have 700 clients on our database from all imaginable sectors. Anything that is to do with the testing of conventional mechanics, we do."
Naturally enough, Millbrook is careful to stay a step ahead of the latest automotive developments, with the result that it has recently invested in facilities to test the latest engine technologies. However, this does not represent any move away from conventional technology, as Fragoso points out. "There will be a period during which both technologies will co-exist," he says. "Electric vehicles will be phased in. We at Millbrook will continue in our efforts to make conventional engines smarter and more efficient for many years to come. To help manufacturers cut emission levels on conventional technology. But at the same time, we want to anticipate and be a little bit ahead of the game on new technologies, notably vehicle electrification. And this is because we believe that the future is there. Unquestionably one day all vehicles will be electric, the question is when."
Millbrook's work testing such vehicles has been ongoing for some time and has thrown up a number of challenges. Says Fragoso: "Throughout 2008/9, we have had manufacturers of electric vehicles consulting with us to create the test and validation cycles of these vehicles. Their behaviour – the fact that you get a completely different layout of component locations throughout the chassis and the body – makes their behaviour in crash testing completely different. The fact that there are components in electric vehicles that you don't find in conventional vehicles has also meant that we've had to develop completely additional and different testing schedules. And this is where we've worked with companies over the last few years to develop specific test and durability schedules to prove the quality, reliability and functionality of electric vehicles."
Millbrook has also undertaken work testing hydrogen fuel cell technology, although Fragoso has more reservations on this score. He says: "In my personal view, it's a more complex technology. In simple terms, you're mixing an electrical power plant with a chemical power plant in the same vehicle. But, the magic that fuel cells offer you is the autonomy: you don't have that 'range anxiety' that you have with electric vehicles because wherever you go, you can refuel with hydrogen. You ask me between the two and the answer has to be between the economics of electric batteries versus the economics of storing hydrogen. How these economics mature and how the relative costs materialise will determine which of these technologies win. In the unlikely event that battery technology has peaked and that you can't get below a charging time of two hours. In that hypothetical and unlikely case, then hydrogen or one of the other technologies will win. But I will say once again, I don't think for electric vehicles that that will be an insurmountable obstacle."
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