“We panic-hit brakes, and you can feel a nose dive, where the weight transfers to front springs and axle,” Raymond said. “Then we simulate 10 years of corrosion in six months, soaking the trucks in salt and brine in humidity chambers. Corrosion testing is also done in Halifax, Nova Scotia.”
36,000 miles nonstop
Ram trucks get 36,000 miles of nonstop driving — from northern Minnesota cold to Denver for elevation to Las Vegas to chase heat to Florida for the humility. That looks at the warranty cycles. At the end of the day, the new Ram 1500 will have 6 million miles of equivalent testing.
That doesn’t even include the electromagnetic capability (EMC) testing, which attempts to disrupt the software or electrical network in the truck, Raymond said. “We bomb the truck with electromagnetic signals to see if anything interferes with the frequencies.”
The Ram 1500 spends 20 days, 24 hours a day being road-tested at the proving grounds alone.
Toyota takes its trucks from the mountains of Japan to the brutal 4×4 trails near Moab, Utah, through the blistering roads of Death Valley to the frigid roads of Alaska during the winter.
“We try to figure out how somebody might use these and maybe misuse them. We can break just about anything,” said Sheldon Brown, chief engineer for research and development, working on the Toyota Tacoma.
“A small child might move from the front seat to the back, and climb over the center console. What kind of load is that? Those types of things you can’t define. Or let’s talk about a three-piece bumper. Drivers back up trucks a lot, trailering and going off road, and every once in a while people may back into an obstacle or drag a bumper on a steep off-road trail. Rather than replace the entire bumper, we can make it so you only replace a portion. This is about how vehicles get used in the real world.”
Torture testing the 2019 Toyota TRD Pro Tacoma (Photo: Toyota)
From subfreezing temperatures to deep desert sands, engineers try everything.
“In order to be sure the product is going to perform the way consumers demand, car companies have to test,” said Stephanie Brinley, principal analyst at IHS Markit. “Talking about it, that’s about building confidence with the consumer that the products will, in fact, perform as advertised.”
Robot test dummies
Ford uses driving robots to withstand more aggressive, repetitive punishment human bodies cannot, said Aaron Bresky, Ford F-Series Super Duty truck vehicle engineering manager. “We have to keep upping our testing game.”
The Ford Ranger spends days hooked up to a four-post shaker table to check for squeaks and rattles. This follows a run up the steep grades of the Davis Dam in Arizona and hot dusty terrain of the Australian Outback.
And the Ford Raptor, which drives a 65-mile rough course through sand washes and silt beds in the California desert, has increased its speed from 35 mph to 50 mph.
Engineers at Ford say five days of some repeated testing is equal to 10 years or 150,000 miles of use.
“I pull as much as I’m allowed legally. I truly push my trucks to the limit,” said DenUyl, a construction company owner who expects delivery of his 2019 Ford F-350 on Dec. 22.
He already has a Ford F-150, two F-350s and a Ram 2500.
“My biggest worry is trucks going down during plow season. Every hour counts. If I’m trying to bill $150 an hour, for any hour the truck goes down, I am totally out. The snowstorm only lasts so long; you have to make money when the snow falls,” said DenUyl, a husband and father of three. “And that’s when I’m pushing the hardest — the transmission and the brakes.”
For Ford, GM and Fiat Chrysler, full-size pickups are among the most profitable vehicles in the portfolio. According to IHS Markit data, they accounted for nearly 35 percent of Ford’s U.S. sales in 2017, compared with providing 27 percent of GM’s U.S. sales and 24 percent of FCA’s U.S. sales.
The 2019 F-150 is an update, going up against completely new Ram and Silverado models. It’s the first time in memory that two of the top three trucks have been all new in the same model year, intensifying competition to a new level.
GM’s GMC Sierra luxury truck sells in smaller numbers — No. 17 in overall U.S. vehicle sales last year — but it’s brand new, too.
In raw numbers, the F-Series has an unassailable lead. Ford sold more than 896,000 F-Series trucks last year, the 41st year it was the best-selling truck and the 36th year it was the top-selling vehicle overall.
In 2017 through August, Ford sold 576,334 F-Series while GM sold 363,354 Silverados and Fiat Chrysler sold 327,759 Rams.
By the same time this year, Ford sold 603,926 full-size trucks; Silverado sold 378,731 and Ram sold 323,727.
Ford grew its market share. GM grew its market share slightly. Ram slipped a bit.
Not for commuting
John McElroy, a longtime industry observer and host of Autotline.tv, emphasized that trucks are often used for punishing work and not just commuting.
“Companies weigh them down and drive them over rough roads while hauling maximum capacity trailers,” he said. “The engines can’t overheat and brakes can’t wear down. They’re put through a lot more smashing and bashing and more miles than any passenger car.”
Every company brags about their truck torture tests, but all testing is pretty comparable at this point, McElroy said.
“My guess is the general public doesn’t know much about the extent to which automakers test their trucks, even before they started using robots,” he said. “I mean, they would have these sorts of mechanical arms that would open and slam car doors, and they did this for weeks. Then they’d have a test with a plunger coming down, like with a human butt, smashing into seat and twisting back and forth. They do this a million times.”
Follow Detroit Free Press reporter Phoebe Wall Howard on Twitter @phoebesaid.