On Track – At the Toyota Arizona Proving Ground, vehicles are tested on this 10-mile oval track as well as several other paved and unpaved surfaces to evaluate both on and off-road performance.
The road ahead is paved with patched concrete and cracked asphalt.
That’s what new vehicles encounter after they leave the Toyota Arizona Proving Ground (TAPG), so it only makes sense to test them on tracks that replicate real roads. And as the testing facility celebrates its 20th anniversary,
it’s more important than ever.
“We’re a lot more involved in the development of new vehicles,” says Russ Ross, a principal technician who has worked at the facility since it opened. “Before, we were just confirming that vehicles developed in Japan worked for the U.S. market. It’s a big change in responsibility.”
The change was foreshadowed at TAPG’s grand opening ceremony in 1993. “This marks another milestone for us in putting our American operations on a truly American footing,” said then Toyota Motor Corporation (TMC) Chairman Shoichiro Toyoda.
Located in a remote area about 40 miles outside Phoenix, the 12,000-acre site was selected for its relatively flat terrain and harsh climate. The temperature in Arizona can easily reach 114 degrees in the summer – and it soared to 119 degrees this June. Surface temperatures on the 10-mile oval track can hit 160 degrees, while vehicles can reach speeds of 160 mph.
Digging In – Toyota executives break ground for the TAPG on May 31, 1991.
“Our first priority is to create a safe environment to test vehicles to their limits,” says Mark Schrage, TAPG general manager.
TAPG associates do exactly that. They scrutinize engines, suspensions, brakes, transmissions, tires, and heating and air conditioning systems. They analyze handling, ride comfort, vibration and noise on some 20 different track surfaces. They determine whether paint and fabric will fade in the searing sun.
“Virtually every Toyota, Lexus and Scion vehicle sold in North America comes through the proving ground at some point in its development,” says Schrage. “We confirm the durability and suitability of the vehicle to ensure quality for our customers.”
In addition to serving North American affiliates, the proving ground plays a global role. For example, TMC brought the Lexus LFA to the track.
Nearing the Finish Line – Toyota Motor Corporation Chairman Shoichiro Toyoda makes a “genchi genbutsu” (go and see) visit in December 1992.
Since TAPG opened, the number of associates has doubled, from 25 to 50. The technology also has multiplied during the past 20 years.
Enhanced Vehicle Stability Control systems have joined anti-lock brake systems. Vehicles that once had two air bags now have eight or nine. Speedometers and other instruments are now electronically controlled.
“We have cars with a lot of new technology,” says Chris Hill, principal safety specialist and another 20-year TAPG veteran. “We need to confirm that the vehicles are tested safely and correctly, so we have a great product for the customer.”
That means installing new equipment, such as an electric charging station. The RAV4 EV rounded the oval track, and fuel cell hybrid vehicles are also making dry runs.
“It’s always changing,” Hill says. “It’s interesting to be on the cutting edge of technology, to see the vehicle develop from the infancy stage to production and then continue to improve with new technology.”
Banner Day – A car bursts onto the track during the grand opening ceremony on April 22, 1993.
It’s also gratifying to influence the final product. “It’s rewarding when you find something that needs to be improved, and it gets changed before production,” says Ross. “It’s cool when your evaluation makes a difference.”
It makes a difference in a North American strategy affirmed by then Toyota Technical Center President Satoshi Nakagawa at the grand opening ceremony of TAPG. “It represents a giant step in Toyota’s quest to build vehicles for North Americans, in North America, by North Americans,” he said.
While the Toyota Arizona Proving Ground has a strong impact on vehicle development, the facility leaves a gentle footprint on the environment. Less than 4 percent of the total site is being used, leaving the surrounding desert intact.
TAPG maintains stock ponds and water catchment basins for wildlife, and culverts are large enough for small mammals to pass through. Nesting habitats that were disturbed were replicated with identical habitats, and saguaro cacti displaced by the facilities were relocated to another area of the site.