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Prototype testing: the winter mecca of car testers

Prototype testing
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The time has come every year at the beginning of winter. Arjeplog, the nest of 3,100 souls in northern Sweden, comes to life. The temperatures are consistently below zero degrees Celsius and the beautiful lake landscape is preparing for its main season. Even if the auto industry has been sneaking through the global economy for months with an eye on the ground. Test drivers and development teams hardly come to rest. The pressure to bring technical innovations and new cars onto the market is too great. In Rovaniemi, Finland or Arjeplog in northern Sweden, both not far from the Arctic Circle, fox and elk say goodnight. For more than three quarters of the year, a few anglers and nature fans get lost in the Arctic Circle. But when the auto industry comes, the fifth season will begin for a good three months - a different kind of carnival. For Thomas Hopper and Christian Billig, both development engineers at BMW, it will not be the first winter in the unadorned but calmingly beautiful winter landscape. Hopper is dealing with the BMW X6 Hybrid these weeks, and Billig is already experiencing its second winter with his newest pupil, the new BMW X1. 'We are very well on time with the development of the X1,' said Billig, 'structurally everything is lashed down. Now it is a matter of fine-tuning. We can change the software until a few weeks before the market launch.' Both vehicles are due to come onto the market in 2009 and so the development teams in the strictly secured Artic Driving Center northeast of Rovaniemi have their hands full these days.

Winter test mecca for the auto industry

Arjeplog is the most important region for car tests in the world during the winter months. Here in Lapland, the winters are cold, predictable and the snow is dry. The testers like that. Within a few days, the frozen lake landscape becomes a test mecca from A for Alfa to V to Volvo. 'There is hardly a manufacturer that is not here in winter,' says Wilhelm Cordes, head of the local BMW base, 'the opportunities for car tests are ideal.' For around three months, the sleepy little town has become the anything but secret hot spot for the auto industry. On the snow-covered streets around Slagnäs, Arjeplog or Rovaniemi, you can see almost more prototypes defaced beyond recognition than the residents' private vehicles. Here a disguised Fiat van, there the new Opel Meriva with sliding doors, and a few meters further on, the almost finished Porsche Panamera at the Shell petrol stationrefueled.

Own weekly newspaper

Mayor Bengt-Urban Fransson and the local publisher couple Illona and Johan Fjellstörm are the constants in Arjeplog. The aging old hippies Illona and Johan are the central point of contact for car testers and residents alike. 'We've been publishing our weekly newspaper for almost 20 years now,' says Illona Fjellstörm, 'at first the car testers didn't know anything about the people here. The other way round, it was no different.' Without further ado, the couple came up with the idea of ​​publishing a weekly newsletter with news from the region in winter. The Arjeplog Times celebrates its annual resurrection at the end of December and then appears for around three months.

The vehicles are planked and glued, so that the prototypes, which will usually only come onto the market in a few years, keep their most important secrets to themselves for as long as possible. The test sites of the individual manufacturers are hermetically sealed; the same applies to the ice lakes, which the 'icemakers' have been preparing for the auto industry since mid-November. 'We work on the ice rink between four and eight o'clock so that everything is ready for car tests,' says ice maker Mattias Jonsson, who has also worked as a test driver at VW and a computer expert in Stockholm. Night after night, special milling machines and polishing machines are used to hit the ice lakes. 'Every year I look forward to the time when the car testers come,' says Bengt-Urban Fransson. 'It's just nice to see how lively and international everything becomes here.' The shops open, the hotels reactivate their staff and the local petrol stations become major customers of the Scandinavian petrochemical industry overnight.

Where can you find free love here?

In the past, local ladies also rubbed their hands over the automobile migratory birds. 'The car testers stayed for up to three months and were of course particularly attractive to the local women,' says the mayor, 'that was the end of many marriages.' Editor-in-chief Illona Fjellström laughs: 'At that time, there were also car testers from Italy who had heard about free love in Sweden and asked us where something like this was available.' She herself moved to Arjeplog from Johannesburg, South Africa, decades ago. The days of free love are over. The approximately 2,000 to 2,500 engineers and test drivers who work regularly in the region are now much shorter in the vicinity of the Arctic Circle.

Hunters and hunted

In addition to the auto industry, there is Arjeplog not much. A COOP market, a handful of small shops, the local post office 'Arjeplog Times' and two petrol stations. 'The filling stations are our Achilles heel,' confesses Stefan Hache, head of the development department for the S and CL class at Mercedes, 'at some point our prototypes have to be usedRefueling. 'Erlkönigjäger also invade Lapland in the winter months.' Sometimes it is quite adventurous what they do to get a photo, 'says developer Oliver Jung.' Roads are blocked and colleagues are slowed down. ' In the Swedish region around Arjeplog, Arvidsjaur and Slagnäs, apart from the car testers, hardly anyone gets lost, things are more turbulent in Rovaniemi on the Finnish side. Rovaniemi advertises that it is Santa's home throughout winter. The Santa Claus village has developed into a tourist stronghold. Most of them come from Asia, the USA, southern Europe and England to the Swedish Arctic Circle.

People don't care about Erlkönig

We would be nothing here without car testers

Mayor Bengt Urban Fransson leans back at his desk and looks back at the past: 'The last mine closed here in 2002. We are slowly trying to find one Building tourism. It's not easy. Without the auto industry, we would simply be nothing here. In the summer, the hotels are therefore mostly closed. In the winter, however, we are completely booked out. ' In the high test season between the end of January and the beginning of March, more than 2,000 test drivers and development engineers populate the small town. On the other hand, there are just 600 hotel beds. Many have to switch to the 170 private quarters and are not even reluctant to do so. The test drivers mostly have a six-day week and circle ten hourstracks in the snow during the day. In the first place, the increasingly important control systems of cars are tested, but also cold start behavior, engine and transmission configurations. 'We are, so to speak, the first critical customer and check the properties of the vehicles,' says the warmly wrapped BMW development engineer Oliver Jung at the wheel of a camouflaged prototype. For around three weeks he scrutinizes the new models. If everything is on schedule, it goes back to Munich or, as a stark contrast, perhaps to the hot country trials in southern Africa or Nevada.

What is missing is an airport

Each season the car companies bring 450 million kronor, the equivalent of around 45 million euros, to the 13,000 square meter community. What Arjeplog lacks is an airport. 'The development departments drive some of the prototypes up here on their own. That's at least 2,300 kilometers in three to four days,' says BMW coordinator Wilhelm Cordes, 'the changing teams then fly to Arvidsjaur 80 kilometers away on an industrial charter and then leave it continues to our test center. ' The teams of car testers are as large as they are diverse. 'We have around 200 to 250 people on the test site every day,' says Bernd Löper, who is responsible for development for fuel cell vehicles at Mercedes-Benz. The alternative drive concepts in particular are currently experiencing their second hot winter in Lapland.


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