By: Jag Dhatt
Windsor, ON: We Canadians have a lot to be proud of and unknown to some, the list is extensive. More than just maple syrup, hockey and the breathtaking backdrops, Canadians have been key in inventions, innovations, and of course, humanitarian endeavours. When a new coffee and donut shop was needed, Tim Horton’s came to be. When compassionate aid was needed in other countries, Canada stepped up to the plate. And of course, when NASA needed a remote manipulator system in their Space Shuttles, the Canadarm was built.
When the world thinks of the Big Three in automotive, the focus is always on Motor City, also known as Detroit. But, just across the river from Motor City sits Windsor, Ontario, where some of the key innovations for Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) are designed, built, and integrated. In late June of this year, we were invited to the Automotive Research and Development Centre (ARDC) to see first hand the workings of FCA Canada Engineering. It was a rare event as normally, the centre is off-limits to guests.
The ARDC was opened in 1996 as a partnership between the University of Windsor and FCA Canada. As years passed, partnerships were added with Waterloo, McGill, McMaster, Sherbrooke, and even Torino (Italy). Now occupying over 215, 000 square feet and home to over 200 employees, it’s got Ivy League status when it comes to automotive research and design. For students attending the University of Windsor, ARDC is the placement they want if automotive engineering is in their future.
“The focus of this facility is to test the limits of many FCA vehicles, and most of the time, we push the vehicles until they fail,” said Antonio (Tony) Mancina, Director of Canadian Engineering at the ARDC. “Once we know when and why the vehicles fail, we develop components to solve the failures, so they don’t happen to owners on or off the road.”
On display, in a state-of-the-art section of the facility, was the new RAM 1500, bobbing up and down, side-to-side, and at various tilts. “This allows us to test the various road conditions that North American owners will encounter,” said Mancina.
If that doesn’t impress you, this above said closed chamber can vary temperatures from extreme heat (+40 degrees) to extreme cold (-60 degrees). It’s a pretty impressive setup. “What really makes us special is that we are a testing, designing, and engineering facility, all in one place,” says Mancina.
Another vehicle on display, complete with 15 stickers plastered all over its body, was a Jeep Wrangler. The ARDC’s contribution to this vehicle included headlights, steering wheel and system, engine cooling, braking, body and frame, seat belts and suspension, just to name a few.
As the tour continued, we were taken into a completely dark building – the headlight laboratory. Over 100 meters in length, this laboratory can become pitch black where you can’t see anything, unless you know, you’re Riddick. “There is no other facility like this anywhere in the world,” said Mancina. “It’s fitted with a stretch of road, complete with road and traffic signs where we can test the performance of LED lamps and bleed patterns, and ultimately, create headlamps that are superior to anything else on the road.”
Up next came the seat lab, where seats are not only tested for longevity, but pressure-sensor mapped to enhance comfort for the driver and passengers. I spend about 500 hours in a year in a car, so comfort, durability, and ergonomics is very important to me. I’m jumping the gun here, but when we drove the 2019 RAM 1500 after the tour, I can attest that the seats were darn comfortable.
Then, there’s some of the things that aren’t so easy to feel. The brake laboratory’s current goal is quiet brake operation. Of course, braking dynamics, longevity, and even wear are always on the forefront; however, Mancina says, “It’s the innovations that the consumers will notice that we’re the most proud of.”
Most of the time, journalists get ample time behind the wheels of cars, and sometimes, we’re lucky to have a factory tour. But, having the chance to go behind the scenes in one of the most advanced design and research facilities in the world was nothing short of spectacular.