Nissan’s ‘secret’ site

By John Stapleton

May 20, 2011 - 6:49 am
Security guard Beverly Chism makes sure Nissan Technical Center is secure. Photo by John Stapleton

With 10 miles of fence line and 24/7 security inside and around the perimeter, the Nissan Technical Center staff closely guards what they are testing inside their warehouses and on their test tracks.

“We get people that drive up all the time and think they can come in and take a peek,” said Anita McFadden, the facility’s senior manager. “It doesn’t quite work that way. Tours are occasionally provided upon special request, but they are limited in scope. We have prototype vehicles we are testing, and sometimes they are in a certain stage of development that we don’t want the public or our competition to know about.”

Nissan originally tested automotive cooling systems in a joint venture with Calsonic prior to buying the company out in 2001. Now the 3,000-acre site, with 34 lane-miles of roads, is Nissan’s only testing facility in North America.

Testing occurs 22 hours a day, seven days a week, with the only scheduled stoppages for shifts changes and track maintenance. Nissan’s drivers log about two million miles at the track plus an addition two million on the public roads each year.

“One of the reasons Nissan chose this area was because within a few hours drive, you have just about every type of climate and terrain,” said McFadden. “We do drive our prototypes up through Flagstaff, Colorado and Utah, in the colder, higher altitudes, and we drive through into Mexico and Death Valley, where there are different desert terrains than what we have here.”

However, it is the test course most outsiders are interested in.

“One would think ‘test course’ means drivers going at high speeds and lots of crashes,” operations technician Donna Boché said. “It’s hardly the case. Most tests are done with normal and repetitious driving in mind.”

The drivers are assessed before they are hired, but when it comes to the intense driving exercises, the company uses trained engineers. The course itself offers a variety of surfaces found all over the United States. Some portions are cobbled, rough and intentionally potholed. Another portion has a steep incline where braking and load capacities are tested. There is also an area capable of being flooded, allowing for vehicles to be tested in slick and wet conditions.

All drivers are actively monitored through a command center. It operates like a traffic controller and keeps drivers informed of each other’s movements while watching for emergency actions.  

“Drivers quickly find out they are not going be out there like Jimmie Johnson or Dale Earnhardt, Jr.,” McFadden said. “It can be a rather tedious job as drivers have to adhere to strict rules of safety and the different variations of testing.”

Most drivers are local hires, and, on average, the center employs between 150 and 180 people, ranging from groundskeepers to engineers.

“About 40 percent of our employees come from the area,” said McFadden, “and we are at the point where we would like to begin planning ways to reach out and interact with all the surrounding communities.”

One example of their community relations efforts are the center’s donations of school supplies and bike helmets to students at Stanfield Elementary School. Their engineers have worked with the robotics team at Casa Grande Union High School and participated in Toys-for-Tots, food drives and school career days. They are also discussing instituting an automotive program at Maricopa High School.

In a unique solution to the dust control issues that come with 3,000 acres of land in the desert, Nissan Technical Center contracted with a local farmer to irrigate and grow crops. Plowed lines – and in some cases sprouting alfalfa – are visible between the loops of the course.

In addition, Nissan’s on-site emergency team works with the Ak-Chin Indian Community’s first responders. Both Nissan and the Community are using their knowledge in safety to run frequent drills under different scenarios.

According to McFadden, ongoing research and development and new products such as electronic vehicles will yield continued growth for the Nissan Technical Center in Maricopa.

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