“$200 Million,” you might ask? “Isn’t that a lot for a big pipe with a fan on one end?” Yes, yes it is, but look, wind tunnels are amazingly complex machines. I’ve been involved with more than a few over my life, from low speed jobs to hypersonic models that take weeks to prep and two seconds to fire off.
They’re like flat reference planes or micrometers. You invest a lot of money in them, and I mean a lot of money, because you can measure stuff down to the beat of a hummingbird’s wing.
Hot Then Cold
The new tunnel will feature a rolling road set up with an environmental simulation facility. Air speeds can be dialed from nothing up to 200 mph, and the advanced climatic chamber can go from 104 degrees to minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit.
That’s equivalent of going from the Sahara to the Arctic.
Airflow & Aerodynamics
The rolling road is an important, complex, and expensive part of any current, state of the art wind tunnel facility. Essentially the test vehicle sits not on a section of immovable metal, but on a moving conveyor belt-like affair that simulates passing over a road surface. I know, this seems like a lot of overkill, but it allows you to simulate what is going on with wheel/tire rotation and how it effects airflow around and, most importantly, under the body of the vehicle.
Road vehicle aerodynamics come down to two big areas: making the airflow work for you (i.e. producing downforce) or punching a smaller, cleaner hole in the air. So, if you can move down the highway cleaner, and your truck gets one more mile per gallon, so what? Well, assume for a minute you’re managing a fleet of delivery vehicles, and it’s time to buy new trucks. If Ford can get you 1 MPG better, and you drive each truck around 200,000 miles a year, and you are going to buy, oh, let’s say fifty trucks . . . you can see where these numbers are going, no?
Ford is being so precise that their new tunnel will sport not just one, but five moving belts. Each wheel gets its own belt and the huge fifth belt runs down the center of the vehicle. Airflow around the entire vehicle can be dialed up to 155 mph, and if you want to switch to a single belt (all of this stuff can be swapped around like a giant Lego set) you can reach speeds of up to 200 mph.
Why? Why go that fast when you’re dinking around with trucks and sedans and stuff?
Ford says it “opens up a new breed of testing for high-speed performance and racing vehicles,” to which I say cough-Ford GT Le Mans program-cough.
“This new wind tunnel facility will not only allow us to test our performance and racing vehicle line-up but will also enable us to share innovations across all our global Ford products,” said Dave Pericak, Ford Performance Global Director.
The new wind tunnel will enable Ford engineers to validate vehicle designs at a higher level. Hence, we get more fuel efficient cars and trucks and Ford gets better race cars. Everyone wins. Construction on the new 13 acre wind tunnel complex starts this year at Ford’s current Drivability Test Facility in Allen Park, Michigan.
Tony Borroz has spent his entire life racing antique and sports cars. He means well, even if he has a bias towards lighter, agile cars rather than big engine muscle cars or family sedans.