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Girl TORQUE: NZ's Snow Farm


The Snow Farm in Wanaka plays an important role in improving car safety the world over

It's easy to take stability control, ABS or four-wheel-drive for granted. After all, even the cheapest Hyundai Getz or Kia Picanto has stability control and the humble Daihatsu Terios has four-wheel-drive. How hard can it be?

But all this stuff started out in pricey cars, their purchase cost helping to pay for the research and development programmes required to bring them about.

I thought about all that as I stood shivering in the slushy snow at the Southern Hemisphere Proving Grounds, better known as the Snow Farm.

I'd gone there as a guest of BMW, to try out it's xDrive system on the pristine white skidpans and trails that make up one of the 12 distinct testing areas up here.

But it had rained all night, the ice pans were knee deep in slush and the expensively-maintained hard-pack snow was anything but.

All we could do was trial the system up and down steep slopes, with one set of wheels on wet ice, the other on heated tar. The system's impressive, but not as impressive as this place.

The Snow Farm took 14 years to become profitable - now it's a multi-million dollar facility that's part of the car industry's winter testing circuit, filling the June to August months that are the northern hemisphere's summer as manufacturers' engineers follow the bad weather round the globe.

Each year around 30 companies turn up with 500 engineers and 3000 mostly studless snow tyres. About 150 cars are tested here too, brought to NZ in a fleet of 747s. This is big business.

This facility now covers 1.9 million square metres. Up to 12 clients can test at a time, each on a separate facility. All include compacted snow flats and tracks groomed overnight by fleets of specialist equipment, some incorporate refrigerated containers, and there's even an ice tunnel.

Getting the snow right is a science; it has to be hard and smooth. Old snow gets grainy so it's milled and heated overnight, then compacted under 15 ton rollers to replicate the worst of the world's winter road conditions. Snow has half the grip of bitumen, ice a tenth the grip; if you're testing tyres or safety systems like stability control you have to have the conditions right - and day-to-day consistent.

The information gleaned is sent back to northern hemisphere laboratories via one of NZ's most sophisticated fibre optic broadband systems. Engineers back at base download the data in their morning, write new software and send it back before they head home - just as NZ is getting up for work.

WHO and UN data from the 2005/07 plenary sessions says there are over 3000 road fatalities a day worldwide and 50 million injuries annually. They say that if cars (and drivers) don't get safer, those figures will increase by 67% before 2020. The UN targets a 50% increase.

Car companies play their part. They can't directly affect driver skill, or road engineering, but they can improve their cars to remove the vehicle factor in fatalities.

And it's facilities like this one that make it less likely you or I will die in a crash.

Read more Girl TORQUE columns here.

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