Millbrook gears up to test future automotive technologies

New facilities at the Millbrook Proving Ground will take the UK automotive industry’s primary testing centre towards the future of driving. Stuart Nathan reports. 

Millbrook Proving Ground in Bedfordshire has for many years been the place where the automotive industry comes to test that its products meet the performance standards for which they are built. A banked circuit allows cars to be driven at speed with no steering input, and routes providing a variety of challenging surfaces, twists and turns snake into the surrounding countryside.

Take a drive around these routes with Millbrook staff and they will show off the area of repaired surface where a car chase was filmed for the James Bond film Casino Royale, and the hero’s iconic Aston Martin tumbled end over end. But those petrol head days are coming to an end, and Millbrook is preparing for the new era of automotive technology, when electrification and autonomy rule the roads.

Recent additions to the facilities at the proving ground include a battery testing centre and an “automotive village”, both designed to facilitate the development of these technologies.

Peter Miller, chief engineer of the battery centre, explained that battery testing has been a part of Millbrook’s life for some years, but the new centre will allow it to increase the number of tests it carries out. “We test cells, which are the basic elements, modules which are combinations of cells, and then the whole pack. Then we test electric power trains, that maybe have a battery simulator or may have a battery connected to them, and then ultimately we test electric vehicles on the tracks that we’ve got here.”

We can now test over a megawatt of power, which is some way in advance of what we actually need to do at the moment, but it gives us some headroom for the future

Most of the tests are concerned with battery capacity and charging time, which in recent years have increased and decreased respectively. Clients tend to be cell manufacturers, integrators who fit cells into batteries, and increasingly tier 1 automotive companies themselves, as they become battery manufacturers, Miller said. “We think this new centre is the largest in Europe. We can do tests on a much larger scale, now up to 12 packs simultaneously, and soon even more.”

The main changes that Miller is seeing in batteries is in size. “The battery pack has become three or four times larger. So we can now test over a megawatt power, which is some way in advance of what we actually need to do at the moment, but it gives us some headroom for the future.”

In general, Miller’s team tests products which are near to production, where they see an increasing level of standardisation in technology such as battery chemistry. “As we move towards the prototype level, we see a lot more variation. We are quite unusual in that we will test things that are at the research level, and that often implies different hazards that may crop up during testing. These might be fire, explosion, risk of electric shocks, and release of potentially hazardous gases. We have to prepare for the worst and hope that we don’t get the worst.”

Millbrook’s Battery Test Facility will be the UK’s biggest private investment in independent battery testing

Currently, the test centre is designed to operate with the tests fully supervised, but Miller expects it to be increasingly automated as time goes on. Within the next decade or two, Miller expects that lithium ion technology which currently dominates automotive batteries will continue to be the main technology coming into laboratories, but volumes will increase significantly. By 2040, however, he expects new technologies to be becoming more prevalent. “5 to 10 years we can be fairly sure what we’re going to be testing, beyond 10 years it gets a bit fuzzy, and the 20 year horizon we’d expect it to change quite significantly.”

The automotive village, which opened on the same day as the battery centre, is basically five interconnected garages, each with their own attached computer suite, designed to allow the very large amounts of data collected by experimental autonomous vehicles to be downloaded. According to David Kernohan, key account manager for connected and autonomous vehicles, this is a response to the demand from developers. “They’re not interested in hoists and air-lines and things, what they want to know is ‘Can I plug my car in?’ And ‘How do I get the data uploaded at the end of the day?’” To that end, the garages are equipped with full fibre and Wi-Fi systems to handle large data flows.

This, Kernohan explains, reflects that autonomous vehicle developers “Don’t tend to be vehicle people, they’re more software people. Actually the vehicles have been a bit of an inconvenience, they don’t really know much about vehicles.” The development of the autonomous village has gone hand-in-hand with the addition of more technology to increase data connectivity around the site: increasingly, the roadways are lined with posts bearing antennae to transmit and receive information from the infrastructure and vehicles. Millbrook is shortly to install a lidar system, and the testing facilities now have full camera coverage.