A scant 35 miles south of the Artic Circle rests the small Swedish town of Arjeplog, where hundreds of test engineers from dozens of the world’s automakers converge to test whether their vehicles can withstand the rigors of this artic Mecca. After spending more than 30 years testing its vehicles in four different locations in this regions of the world, German luxury carmaker BMW has selected Arjeplog as the locale for its new cold weather testing facility, marking a consolidation of cold weather testing for future BMW, MINI and Rolls-Royce vehicles into one facility. “We have been conducting cold weather tests at facilities that were as much as 435 miles apart from one another and that has created a number of challenges, not the least of which was the logistics of moving vehicles and personnel from one location to another,” said Dieter Stolt, head of vehicle testing for BMW Group. “Starting in March , we have consolidated that down to one facility where we can have up to 200 engineers working together.” BMW made the decision to build its $19-million complex in June 2004 and within 10 months the construction of the three test buildings and multiple tracks was completed. The tracks include a number of overland circuits—some of which are heated and cooled via underground hot- and cold-water delivery systems—complete with uphill gradients, dynamic driving areas and a special “chessboard” course with asphalt and ice at alternating intervals to test all-wheel drive and braking systems in any number of stop and launch scenarios.
Stolt said BMW selected Arjeplog because of its consistent weather patterns. Temperatures average -10°C from November until the end of April, with nightly low temperatures falling to as much as -40°C. Additionally, the vast number of lakes in the area provide ideal for testing handling in low grip situations. BMW’s facility is located directly adjacent to Kakel Lake, where engineers set up numerous courses to run vehicles directly on the iced surface. To assure the quality of the iced surface, BMW even hires helicopters to fly at low altitudes over the lake to remove any snow from the surface, allowing the ice to achieve a thicker density while preventing the snow from forming an insulating layer above the ice. As if that isn’t bizarre enough, there are five “icemakers” on staff at the facility whose sole responsibility is to assure that the ice is groomed just right for the various tests conducted on the lake. Another key factor used in selecting Arjeplog is the low number of full-time inhabitants, where just 3,300 people reside in an area the size of the entire country of Belgium. The sparseness of the population helps to reduce the potential of spy photographers descending onto the town without getting noticed.
The Arjeplog facility will play a crucial role in BMW’s plans to develop next-generation all-wheel-drive systems, along with assuring the automaker’s Integrated Chassis Management (ICM) initiative takes root. Under the guise of ICM, BMW engineers focus on making sure vehicle stability and safety systems work in concert with one another seamlessly. As BMW introduces a number of advanced safety systems on its vehicles, including Dynamic Stability Control (DSC) and xDrive all-wheel-drive, engineers will be tasked with making sure the systems improve the responsiveness and handling of vehicles, as opposed to becoming an intrusive nanny trying to spoil the experience. That doesn’t mean BMW plans to give up on its treasured standard rear-drive configuration, it just wants to make its vehicles more enjoyable for drivers at all levels.