A top secret facility in the arctic circle provides the perfect conditions to put Audi’s handling to the most brutal of testing.
14 March, 2022
It gets mighty cold up in northern Lapland. It’s a balmy -21 degrees on a sunny January morning as Audi calibration engineer, Raphael Kis gets ready to go to work in the secret testing location known only as KALT 1.
As work environments go, it’s a spectacularly beautiful spot, even if it is a little isolated. The hum of snowplows is audible as they push the fresh snow from the frozen lake and prepare the test tracks just a few hundred metres away from the staff’s hotel accommodation.
Fences completely seal off the area in Lapland and everything is strictly confidential. This is where Audi calibrates its future models on ice and snow – a testing mecca covering more than 3600 hectares and apart from several workshops with office workplaces and the hotel with 440 beds, there is nothing for miles except for a glorious 83 kilometres of test tracks.
The next-largest town is several kilometres away and even the nearest supermarket is a fair hike, but there are no complaints from the 150 Audi technicians all here to make the next generation of Audis handle like … well, Audis.
At the start of the season, the team checks the ice covering the massive lake with a snowmobile and measures its thickness. It needs to be at least 25 to 30 centimetres for a car to be able to drive on it. If the ice is too thin, hovercraft push the snow off the surface over and over to stop the insulating effect and helping the ice to thicken up much faster. The result is a layer of ice that is up to 90 centimetres thick and perfect for the purpose at hand.
Raphael Kis has been coming to the region for testing for 14 years, spending roughly 20 weeks each year in this sort of environment. This morning, he is sitting in a workshop office and gearing up for fine tuning a new Audi model.
When his son was younger, he used to explain that his job involved “Daddy sitting in a car and adjusting it so that people can drive safely’.
Admittedly, it is not quite so simple and nor does it involve Kis relentlessly punting Audi models in seemingly endless power slides on the ice.
“I don’t drive in circles all day long, as one might imagine,” he says and grins. Here and there, new software has to be run on the car and occasionally experts also have to adjust the hardware.
Calibrating a vehicle takes over a year – about one and a half winters – and Kis and his colleagues ideally establish a baseline on dry road in order to adjust the basic handling. Test drives follow on a wet road surface before the winter sets in starting in late November. Ultimately, the car should drive harmoniously on dry and wet roads as well as on ice and snow.
“The ABS, ASC, and driving dynamics control have to correspond to Audi DNA,” Kis explains. The automotive group thinks of its DNA as fulfilling certain criteria that characterise an Audi’s unmistakable handling.
Calibration in the dry will be done in Spain in February in order to ‘drive against it’ again in icy conditions, as Kis says, ’It’s a constant interplay’. The new Audi model’s handling is also refined over the course of a year on mountain roads and passes. “The different road profiles should always be as customer-oriented as possible,” he says.
Every aspect of handling and balanced are scrutinised in these tough conditions. So called ‘use cases’ like, for example, emergency braking under wintery conditions form the basis of the tests driven. When the developers seek to tune a controlled and therefore predictable and stable driving behaviour, objective measurements of initial deceleration and steering support the tuning work.
Straight ahead stability, steering demand, and deceleration build-up are criteria for a rating methodology for ABS braking from various speeds on snow and ice. The results of tuning work flow into an assessment of driving behaviour, which the developers document in the form of a spider web chart – a pattern that is applied to all Audi models on a model-specific basis.
“December and January are the dark months in this icy part of the world – that’s pretty tough,” Kis says. This particular day, the sun came up at 9am and went down again at 2pm. But it’s February and March that are the beautiful months in the northern kingdom according to Kis. That is when the sun and the blue sky occasionally transform the testing grounds into a magical winter landscape.
Back in the workshop, analysing the measurement results with functional developers and system partners is next on the agenda.
“What usually happens is that someone thinks that the car should oversteer a little bit more, for example,” says Kis. “But all in all, we have pretty much the same understanding of how the car should drive in the end.”
There are certain characteristics that you come to expect with any Audi and at the end of the day that’s what Kis and his time are looking to reproduce in each new model. Regardless of the Audi’s drivetrain, that’s the aim of the game, and even with the increase in electric models from the brand, refining the handling has changed very little. Regardless of the model, those who are accustomed to driving an Audi recognise it in the way it drives – the steering properties, traction, stability at speed and behaviour during load changes – these are the inherent characteristics that Kis and his team labour to refine for each successful model.
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