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Tried and tested
Having been in operation for 35 years, Mercedes-Benz’s tech center in Ann Arbor is under new leadership and has recently benefited from major upgrades. ETi took a drive to Michigan to inspect the facility
Brian Fitzgerald is understandably nervous. This is, after all, the first time a journalist has entered, inspected, prodded, analyzed and then asked questions about the Mercedes-Benz Tech Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan – at least under his leadership.
“This facility has been open since 1978 and has always been an emission certification lab,” the Mercedes-Benz Research & Development North America (MBRDNA) senior manager says proudly. “The EPA has its big facility in Ann Arbor, so that’s why we are in Ann Arbor.”
And what a facility it is. Our visit reveals a two- and four-wheel dynamometer, a cold-soaking chamber, solar loading lights, and racks and racks of vehicles waiting to be tested. “All of these items are a big investment,” continues Fitzgerald. “Other facilities just don’t have all of these tools at their disposal.”
The tech center, which houses around 20 employees, seven of whom are technicians, deals with gasoline and diesel-powered vehicles, as well as range determination for electric automobiles. “A huge thing for us is calibration,” notes Fitzgerald. “Everything from the dynamometer to the torque wrenches need calibration. We have a dedicated quality control person, who confirms that all the testing is done perfectly to spec.”
Most of the tech center’s present work is due to the EPA’s Compliance Assurance Program 2000. “In the year 2000, the EPA came out and said that you need to certify vehicles, but also go out and get customer vehicles too. So we need to test low- and high-mileage vehicles – the same setup for all manufacturers. It’s about a year behind, so we recently finished model year 2011 [low mileage] cars and 2008 [high mileage] cars.” This remit also includes tailpipe emissions and evaporative emissions, as well as light-duty vehicles such as the Mercedes Sprinter.
Once a customer vehicle is brought in, it is set up for either evaporative or tailpipe testing. Fitzgerald explains, “There is something called five-cycle testing. You have the vehicle chassis dynamometer, and in that, you can run a number of cycles. You also have to do low-temperature testing at -6.6°C. So we have the ability in our chamber to go cold. Then there is another test called SC03, which is solar loading, so we can simulate the sun.” The M-B team also performs highway and city-cycle tests, as well as the US06 high-speed cycle. “Prior to doing the emissions testing, the vehicle has to soak in a controlled temperature and environment for between 12 and 24 hours. This can all be done in our building. We are sampling the emissions into bags and we’re looking at the pollutants that are coming out.”
Fitzgerald continues, “For the evaporative emissions testing, we put the car into the shed and look at the hydrocarbons that are emitted over a given period of time. As we cycle the temperature within the shed, as per the rules and regulations, we are measuring all output. We also need to measure the amount of spit-back – the amount of vapors you get while filling the automobile with fuel.”
Fuel for thought
The facility also deals with work relating to the actual fuel. “Right now, there is the new Tier 3 legislation [EPA Vehicle Emission and Fuel Standards Program, set to begin in 2017]. A big part of that is fuel,” says Fitzgerald. “The biggest thing regarding diesel is particulates. However, with the new regulations, this is also becoming a concern with gasoline. We have a system – similar to a coffee filter – that we use to measure before and after for particulates. On diesels, that’s regulated of course, but in the future that will be the case with gasoline.”
In addition to the Ann Arbor base, MBRDNA also operates a facility in Long Beach, California. It’s a similar-sized building but they employee more people, due to development work on future Mercedes-Benz models. “The Air Resources Board (ARB) is based in California,” he notes. “They [the Long Beach building] deal with ARB and onboard diagnostics requirements, as well as low-emissions vehicle regulations. They have more of a connection with Germany as they also do a lot of hot weather testing in Death Valley.”
But back to Fitzgerald’s operation on the East Coast. While the majority of the Ann Arbor work is on Mercedes-Benz models, the team also handles some outside customer business. “We have a very capital-intensive facility,” adds the MBRDNA senior manager. “If we have free capacity, then we make that available to others. We work with single inventors and other companies. We only deal with competitors’ series production cars. So we have mutual non-disclosure agreements and their data is held on separate computers.”
With the site visit coming to an end, Fitzgerald, who by now is far more relaxed, is keen to show an enormous, 1,112-page book on a glass side-table in his office. “What we do here is all governed by the Code of Federal Regulations. This book details all the equipment and methodology of the equipment and the testing procedure. The EPA, of course, has specified limits for all we do. Pretty much anything you can think of is specified and measured and it’s our job to certify the cars and make sure they meet those standards.” Surely that task alone is more nerve-wracking than a visiting journalist? Fitzgerald just smiles. With a high-tech facility brimming with advanced engine testing equipment, it is little wonder the Mercedes-Benz senior manager is proud of the Ann Arbor operation.
Loan us a car!
Obtaining customer cars and light trucks for the EPA’s CPA 2000 program can be quite challenging, especially as all vehicles have to be randomly selected and Fitzgerald’s team is not allowed to work with local dealerships to obtain particular test cars.
At the Ann Arbor facility, the sole role of two employees is to facilitate these loans. They send letters to the customers, informing them of Mercedes’ need to obtain test vehicles. “It’s based on the emission families and evaporative families,” notes Fitzgerald. “Most customers, of course, want to know what’s in it for them.” This usually amounts to the use of a Mercedes-Benz loaner car and some type of incentive – usually a Visa gift card. “As far as loaner cars go, we try to give the customers a similar car or a model up,” he adds. The customer vehicles are tested for a period of between three and four weeks, for either exhaust or evaporative emissions.
But not all vehicles are easy to obtain. “For instance, the Maybach,” explains Fitzgerald. “We couldn’t get one, no one would give up their car. And anyway, what do you give a Maybach owner for a loaner car? If that happens, then we request a waver. We tell the EPA that we’ve contacted all these people and no one is willing to participate. This is why we want customers to reply to the letters we send out, even if they say no.”
Sprinters are also difficult to acquire for testing. “The people who own Sprinters, it’s their work, it’s what they use to make money,” notes Fitzgerald. “So, loaners don’t really help them too much!”