Do auto manufacturers test their cars on public roads in the US?
March 2, 2015 9:47 AM   Subscribe

Cars and trucks go through all sorts of testing on private tracks, I'm sure. I'm curious to know if manufacturers get them out on the street driven by employees before they release them to the public.

I could envision reasons to keep some prototypes under wraps. I don't imagine there's a necessarily an industry standard approach, or is there?
posted by GPF to Travel & Transportation (17 answers total)
Yes, they do test on public roads. If it's something flashy they may "disguise" it somewhat. (Source: friend of friend who worked for major auto supplier)
posted by chocotaco at 9:50 AM on March 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Yes they do, these are often referred to as development mules.
posted by pappy at 9:51 AM on March 2, 2015 [3 favorites]

If you search on "prototype [carmaker] spotted" (I tried "Buick" to make sure this works) you'll find all sorts of reports from car fans about identifying some prototype or another.

But also remember that a platform redesign only happens every several years, most of the changes are just body styling, and a given platform may underly a bunch of different vehicles in a line.
posted by straw at 9:55 AM on March 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

As to where they test, I've spotted one of these, wrapped in eye-crossing vinyl, zooming down the mountains on I-70 in Colorado.
posted by mochapickle at 9:58 AM on March 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

Yes, I live in SE Michigan and see both production and pre-production test cars pretty regularly. They almost always display a manufacturers' plate, a probe port by the tailpipe and a laptop mounted near the dash. There's a guy in my neighborhood who regularly has some flavor of Fiat-Chrysler parked in his driveway overnight.
posted by klarck at 10:09 AM on March 2, 2015 [8 favorites]

They test both on public roads as well as dedicated testing track facilities.
posted by Thorzdad at 10:22 AM on March 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

5 years ago I was at a stoplight on a suburban street outside of Chicago, next to a strange looking car with funky headlights. I couldn't recognize the carmaker's badge or what the hell it was until a year or so later when I saw it on a tech news website.

Turns out it was Tesla Model S, two years before launch.
posted by JoeZydeco at 10:25 AM on March 2, 2015 [3 favorites]

We see a lot of them in the high mountain passes in Colorado; they usually have either a heavy black wrap-around cover that obscures the lines or the camouflage wrap seen in some of the photos above. Like these.
posted by craven_morhead at 10:57 AM on March 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

Yup, I see them on occasion. You can usually tell because they have weird black&white graphic decals on them, lack of badges, and tend to have body modifications (added-on panels, etc) to disguise them and make photos hard to decipher.
posted by quince at 11:02 AM on March 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: A, few, pictures. I see one every few months here in SE Michigan. The black vinyl camouflage is most common, though I've seen more of the "dazzle" camouflage ones lately. There are a decent number that are not camouflaged but are identifiable because of the manufacture's license plates, including some odd types (like an Alfa Romeo, here in Michigan).
posted by kiltedtaco at 11:03 AM on March 2, 2015 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Auto blog goes into a bit of detail about the how and why.

A link to Autoblog's spy-photo category, if you're interested in seeing lots of pictures of such.

Additionally, the external looks may change from year to year, but the underlying chassis may not, so the manufacturer may be able to mount old panels on a new model car. That new model car may have a different engine, and a different transmission, but may look like last years model, with the only exception being the manufacturer license plate(s). Those cars won't have the dazzle camouflage, and the only way you'd really be able to tell is if the driver told you.
posted by fragmede at 11:32 AM on March 2, 2015 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Here is a photo of the latest generation Corvette, crashed.
(That's a public road, and those corvettes were not able to be purchased for nearly another year.)

A few weeks before that, the cars were (literally) "under wraps" during testing.
posted by anonymisc at 12:02 PM on March 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Yes. You can spot these cars by their MFG plates (midway down the page) and the dazzle-like decals that they sometimes wear.
posted by strangecargo at 12:23 PM on March 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

Yes - and multiple manufacturers have proving grounds here in SE Michigan as well. We see the disguised cars from time to time and the proving grounds are well masked with walls and plantings so you can't see in.
posted by leslies at 12:48 PM on March 2, 2015

Best answer: My father was head of the Noise & Vibration Lab at the General Motors Proving Ground in Milford, Michigan, before his retirement a bit over a decade ago. In addition to the kind of stealthy pre-production test driving people are talking about, engineers above a certain level also drove company cars, which were from a large pool of production vehicles. There were also occasionally pre-production cars in the pool, which were sometimes disguised as production vehicles. I can remember work friends of my dad's coming over and saying, "What the hell is that in the driveway?" and my dad saying, "That's next year's K-car," or similar things. The differences in exterior features might be very subtle from year to year, or the exterior might look more like the current model than the final production vehicle would.

My dad had a different car every week; sometimes more often than that. My mom and I used to take the company car to the mall on the weekends, and when we came out from shopping, half the time we not only couldn't remember where we parked, we couldn't remember what kind of car we'd driven to get there. So we'd be standing in a mall parking lot in Flint, thinking, "OK, maybe it was a Buick..." as if that narrowed things down at all. We'd wander around until we saw my dad's hangtag on the mirror. Most of these cars did not have "manufacturer" plates, though some did. This was when I was a kid, before key fobs that could make your car beep for you, and before the dashboard laptops mentioned up-thread as well, though I do remember my dad getting pretty excited about computer applications to data collection as they became a thing.

These company cars were both a perk of the job, and part of the job. The engineers would write up reports on the real-world driving experience. Sometimes they drove competitors' cars as well; I can remember my dad bringing home a few Hondas, and once something with right-hand drive, which was pretty exciting.

Because of my dad's job, I have been to the proving grounds a few times. It's a pretty exciting place. When I was a teenager, my dad took me driving on a banked track, explaining how banked curves help cars make turns at speed. On this track, if you got the speed right, the steep banking would take care of the turns for the car; my dad took his hands off the steering wheel. There are also a heck of a lot of roads in there, simulating many conditions, and my dad's job took him to Arizona multiple times a year for work at the Desert Proving Ground. Once when I was a little kid the engineers in the NVL hung me from an engine hoist by the back of my suspenders. This was very exciting.

Most of our family's experience with this was during the days when GM was so flush that employees routinely called it "Generous Motors," so I'd guess that company cars aren't handed out like candy anymore, much less that there is so much leeway for spouses to drive them, taking the company car to the mall filled with company gas. But it was definitely a part of the process up until my dad's retirement.
posted by not that girl at 4:44 PM on March 2, 2015 [4 favorites]

I was one of those people driving the camouflaged cars over the mountain passes in Colorado for several years. It's actually a pretty easy job to get, look on Craigslist for vehicle evaluator. I worked for Roush. You can look on their site too. Doesn't pay great but it's a hoot. I got to drive those little Fiats a bunch before they came out officially. Definitely one of my favorite jobs.
posted by BoscosMom at 5:42 PM on March 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

Yep.. They , literally, drive them through Hell. I live a mile from Hell, Michigan, there's a route they take on a regular bases, winds through some back roads, a fun drive in anything sporty. We see them come through, usually in full camouflage, manufacturer's plates, on a very regular basis. Being near the headquarters for Road and Track magazine also brings a lot of new/prototype cars into the area as well.
posted by HuronBob at 5:51 AM on March 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

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