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The human component in shock absorber testing

March 8, 2013

Earlier this week I had the opportunity to find out more about shock absorber testing on new vehicles. One of the Detroit-area Big Three is testing shock absorbers in the Los Angeles area and I was able to ride along with a driver and evaluator as they worked to secure the proper rebound and compression settings for a 2014 vehicle that you’ll be able to buy later this year.

What does this comprise? While testing can be done in the general Detroit area or at proving grounds, getting a good loop (in relatively nice weather) brings manufacturers to South California to evaluate and prescribe settings that will mix comfort and handling in a production car or truck. This can be very, very involved and, for that reason no photos were permitted and I’m not able to disclose the name of the manufacturer.

But I will tell you it was a fascinating exercise.

We entered a vehicle that had just been selected to try shock settings with a different wheel-tire combination than it had been using on a previous route. The route is the same, encompassing 45 minutes-worth of smooth and rough – in some cases very rough – roads in the LA basin. We took freeways, major highways and back roads, some of which had more potholes than even I’ve seen in Detroit or other rust belt cities in the midwest of this country.

The driver and passenger in the front seat were equipped with only their seat-of-the-pants feel for the vehicle and an all-stop switch that cuts power. There were no other computers or any other feedback machines in the cabin. They did have a sheet of paper that delineated the inner workings of the shock absorber and the plates that had been changed before. Theirs was a baseline setting and they were looking to improve from there.

As we drove they discussed rebound and compression characteristics and the changes they might want to effect in order to accept the different wheel/tire combo they’d fit on the vehicle. Larger wheels and tires can make a vehicle less comfortable, after all, and the proper blend of comfort and handling over the road is something few of us are willing to give up in our everyday transportation.

Once we’d done the route, we returned to base where the shocks were removed and brought inside the manufacturer’s trailer (sorry, not giving that one away either, but it’s a name you might recognize). There the shocks were taken apart and changes made before the team went out for another check. This is truly and trial-and-error process, I learnt.

With several similar vehicles to test each day, the teams can make as few as three or as many as ten runs. It’s always easier on weekends when there aren’t as many people on the roads, they told me. And incredibly, they’ve been in the area, or at the manufacturer’s secondary test facility in Arizona, since the end of October, with no end in sight as they test, test and test again. They’re hoping to be back at Detroit in April, they said.

You’d think auto manufacturers would use machines to test their shock absorbers for production vehicles and, indeed they do, but it’s still the human component that makes the final decisions on what is ultimately fit on that car or truck on the dealer’s lot. Isn’t that good to know?

By Anne Proffit

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