Friday, October 14, 2011
Recently, I had the chance to travel to GM’s Milford Proving Grounds in Michigan, which is an absolutely gargantuan test facility that resembles a real-life Autopia. Situated on 4,000 acres and featuring more than 180 miles of unimaginable testing roads, it’s where new GM products—including police-specific vehicles—are rigorously developed, tested and refined until they’re released for sale. After spending a day driving 2012 PPV models (details will follow in a subsequent article), and talking with numerous engineers that live, eat and breathe cop cars and trucks, one couldn’t help but come away knowing that some really great police vehicles are entering the marketplace.
The other Big-3 manufacturers, Ford and Chrysler, also make some exceptionally good police vehicles for 2012. And their engineers and program managers are equally as fervent about their commitment to giving officers a top-notch vehicle to drive each day.
So, as an agency limited in the ability to test, much less sit in emerging police vehicles, an objective test environment filled with hard, empirical data and void of hype is valuable for a number of reasons. Fortunately, such testing data is available, and will again be available for 2012 model vehicles through rigorous testing by the Michigan State Police (MSP) and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department (LASD) in the fall months.
A Short History
Founded in 1989, the MSP Precision Driving Unit has long been the primary source of vehicle testing for new police vehicles and motorcycles. Headed by Lt. Keith Wilson, the unit conducts yearly testing at both Chrysler’s Chelsea Proving Grounds and the nearby Grattan Raceway. According to the MSP, the department has been testing vehicles for troopers since 1974, with the current instrument testing conducted by the Precision Driving Unit. On the other end of the country, and more of the “newer kid” on the block, is the testing conducted by the LASD. I say “newer” because, while the reality is that the LASD has also been testing since 1974, their introduction into the vehicle evaluation discussion at a national level has been more recent than the MSP. Regardless of positioning, both tests provide expert-level evaluations of emerging police vehicles, but do so in some distinctly different ways that mean you—as a fleet buyer, evaluator, decision maker etc.—should pay attention to both tests. But first some key advantages of such testing.
Objectivity: Let’s face it, police agencies are like monster truck and NASCAR fans when it comes to being loyal to certain brands for patrol vehicle choices. I’ve personally talked to fleet managers who have stated that until someone pries their dead fingers off the steering wheel of a certain brand, they will never choose a different manufacturer. While such loyalty is a warm dream for many marketing managers, it’s not objective and can clearly cause better vehicle alternatives to be ignored.
By contrast, independent vehicle testing by the MSP and LASD is data that doesn’t lie or manipulate. Yes, subjective evaluations are also included in the testing, but that’s OK in this case because all of the test drivers are expert EVOC instructors who don’t care whose logo is on the hood of the car. All they care about is how the car works. That’s the kind of data you need for a proper buying decision, especially when you consider the fact that vehicles are one of the most expensive and often used items your department purchases.
Repeatability: When you’ve been testing vehicles since the early 1970s, it means you’ve had plenty of time to iron out testing protocols to produce a reliable process. Both agencies use the same racetracks, test facilities and other driving tracks year after year. This reduces the learning curve among their driver cadre, leading to more accurate and reliable results. It also means that data from one year can be compared to data from another year, with a certainty that you’re indeed comparing apples-to-apples. With a reliable vehicle-testing process in place, testing protocols are equitable among all vehicles so that certain tests aren’t slanted in favor of a particular vehicle or driver.
Relevance: Cops know what cops need in a police vehicle. The exclusive use of EVOC instructors who are trained to wring every last bit of performance out of each vehicle in testing formats accurately reflects the type of driving officers encounter daily. Since all tests from both agencies are conducted by sworn officers, it adds significant credibility to the data accumulated. Because of data like 0-to-60-, 80- and 100-mph acceleration runs, threshold braking, high-speed performance and low-speed pursuit scenarios, you can make a more informed decision on performance parameters that meet your needs. Frankly, most officers don’t have a multi-million dollar test track and a squad of expert test drivers sitting outside the back of their station.
Expertise: The point is that unless you’re a pro driver, expert EVOC instructor and have access to a test track and every new 2012 model police vehicle, you simply can’t get the necessary data these tests generate. Simply put: 99% of all officers aren’t trained past basic EVOC in driving, which means you need to make the solid admission that no matter how good a driver you think you are, you probably aren’t anywhere near as good as the test drivers. They do it every day and are trained to do so. I qualified as an expert marksman at my last department, but I still don’t think I know jack about shooting. If I really want to know how a gun performs, I listen to the experts I know who live, breathe and sleep firearms. They’re experts for a reason, just like the drivers in these tests. If you trust in their skills and data, you’ll benefit.
Why Both Tests Matter
There are a number of reasons why you’d be wise to review the test data collected by both agencies.
They test the same things: Both agencies test acceleration from a standing start to various velocities, with the highest measured being 100 mph. They also share similar braking protocols and incorporate subjective ergonomic evaluations by drivers, as well as communication device installation and fuel-efficiency evaluations. Both agencies also use road-race driving courses for dynamic evaluations. In essence, the more sampling data you have to work with, and the more instructor feedback you have, the better prepared you can be in your buying decision.
They test different things: While each agency’s final report tally’s more than 100 pages, there are significant differences in some test areas. Both agencies conduct braking, acceleration and road-course testing, but the LASD also conducts a two-lap mock pursuit on a separate track with subjective feedback by the drivers. They also conduct a “heat” test, which measures the temperature fluctuations of various components during heavy-duty operation.
They test the same things, but differently: While both agencies conduct 32-lap high-speed testing, they do so at different tracks which feature unique configurations. One is nearly 2-miles long, and the other approximately 1.6-miles long. This can mean that one track may be more advantageous to a particular vehicle because of elevation changes, the increasing or decreasing nature of corner design or the length of straightaways. So, having test data from two different tracks can help balance the overall “vehicle picture.”
Another difference is that, although both agencies use four drivers conducting eight-lap timed sessions around a road course, the MSP takes the combined average of the top five lap times of each driver to determine a score. In contrast, the LASD throws out the high and low time, and averages the remaining six lap times. So, factoring in that extra lap or not could potentially affect a vehicle’s score considering the severity of the testing. Again, this isn’t to say either test is more valid than the other, or that one is better than the other, just that they’re different enough that both should be taken into consideration.
More is better: Great information is always helpful, so when you have twice as much of it, use it to your advantage. Enough said.
This year, both agencies will be testing all of the 2012 police-specific models from the Big-3 manufacturers, plus a number of motorcycles. It will be a few months before all of the data from the MSP and LASD tests are processed. But the reasons outlined above for why you would be smart to read, analyze and utilize the data for future patrol vehicle purchases are clear.