GM Cold Weather Development Centre in Kapuskasing tests EVs under extreme conditions

We get a rare look at what goes on behind the doors of GM's winter proving grounds.

By Kunal Dsouza Wheels.ca

Mar 17, 2023 5 min. read

Article was updated 6 months ago

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Kapuskasing, ON – General Motors has been cold-weather testing vehicles in Kapuskasing since 1941 but it didn’t start with passenger cars. Back in those days GM’s testing focused on military vehicles and airplanes for the Canadian government.

Three decades later, on February 14, 1973 the GM Cold Weather Development Centre was born. The town of Kapuskasing officially became GM’s permanent cold weather testing home for North America and it’s only evolved since then.

Now spanning 272 acres it is the largest facility of its kind in Ontario. The centre boasts a 3.6 km advanced test track, a decommissioned airstrip, 30 cold cells that can reliably recreate conditions of -45 degrees Celsius or lower, and a squeak and rattle building (we’ll explain that last one later).

GM Cold Weather Development Centre Kapuskasing

Most of Canada has cold winters but the weather in Kapuskasing, which is a 9 hour drive north of Toronto, has a consistently frigid winter climate. If you’re looking for dependable cold and snow, then Kapuskasing is ideal. We’re talking average temps of -30 degrees Celsius in the winter with dips into the -50 degree Celsius range not uncommon. It’s an extreme environment but if a vehicle can survive here, it’ll work just about anywhere.

Most models GM sells to the public from the humble Chevy Spark to the sporty Corvette spends a part of its development life cycle here. It must successfully pass a series of rigorous tests to get final approval for production.

We recently spent a day in Kapuskasing in order to witness the trials and tribulations a vehicle must undergo to get GM’s seal of approval.

There’s an air of secrecy here. Media usually aren’t allowed in, so getting to see it all is a big deal. With camouflaged experimental vehicles driving around we sense a bit of nervousness from the staff as any leaks could land them in hot water. The secretive nature of the site is understandable as the competition between automakers is cutthroat.

But I’m not here to spy on pre-production vehicles and I’ve always wanted to see what takes place in Kapuskasing. Much of the testing here is shifting to focus on electric vehicles. GM has ambitious plans to phase out internal combustion vehicles by 2035, and our focus in Kapuskasing is understandably centered on the EV.

GM Cold Weather Development Centre Kapuskasing

A showroom ready Cadillac Lyriq (which you can find a review of here) would be our test mule for the day and with the temps hovering at -25 degrees Celsius it was precisely the type of weather an EV like the Lyriq isn’t supposed to work in.

EVs not faring well in cold and snowy conditions is a common misconception and many think they aren’t suitable for many parts of this country. With the exception of reliable charging infrastructure, an ICE car faces the same set of challenges an EV does.

Josh Walton, Engineering Group Manager, is the project lead in Kapuskasing and has worked at the development centre since 2015.

“The only thing majorly different (when testing an EV) is obviously that you need to charge the vehicle. So what we do different with EVs compared to ICE (internal combustion engines) is test all three levels of charge. So Level1, level 2, and level 3 charging.” Walton tells wheels.ca.

GM Cold Weather Development Centre Kapuskasing

The development centre has 21 Level 2 chargers but more importantly 6 DC Fast chargers capable of outputting up to 400kW of power making them some of the fastest chargers around. That’s an irrelevant number because there aren’t any EVs on the market that can make use of those charging speeds just yet. The Cadillac Lyriq itself maxes out at 190kW. But in Kapuskasing the main goal is to collect data and to then apply what they’ve learned to improving the products and correcting any issues before the cars arrive in customer’s driveways.

“Our general durability (testing) is a 12-week cycle. We evaluate everything from powertrain to HVAC performance to interior comfort and infotainment systems. The entire car is tested top to bottom inside of 12 weeks.

“ We go through roughly 9000 km of test mileage during that, so it’s pretty comprehensive,” says Walton.

During those 12 weeks the cars are tested 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, during which time every component is put under scrutiny. During a typical test cycle a window can be rolled up and down up to 1200 times! In a few months each vehicle sees about 2 years of regular use under extreme conditions and they can test up to 250 vehicles annually.

cold cells kapuskasing

GM Cold Weather Development Centre Kapuskasing

The cold cells, basically giant freezers, can hold two Chevy Bolts. They recreate conditions of -45 degrees Celsius. Cars are parked inside overnight and then started in the morning and things like the heated seats, HVAC systems, defoggers, and defrosters are all tested.

We drive the Cadillac Lyriq inside what GM calls the “Squeak and Rattle” building, which is essentially a large tunnel with varying bumpy road surfaces that you drive the cars through up to 20 times an hour. There are speed bumps, rough surfaces, and interlocking tiles that mimic European cobblestone roads. It’s an extremely bumpy ride, even at 20 km/h. This test exposes any squeaks, or rattles from loose trim, improperly fitted components, or materials that have not fared so well in the cold weather. It’s also where they test how comfortable the cabin is.

GM Cold Weather Development Centre Kapuskasing

Next we’re driving on the test track, which has a hard packed snow over gravel surface representative of the rural roads in Northern Ontario. We only took a few laps in the Lyriq but in actual testing the vehicles are driven here for up to 8 hours a day. They also use a decommissioned airfield across the street for dynamic testing, where things like traction control, ABS and stability control systems get put to the test.

For real world testing each car is also driven on the multitude of logging roads surrounding the proving grounds.

So after pouring through the reams of data extracted from testing has GM figured out the EV secret sauce to mitigating diminished battery capacity and the loss of driving range in cold weather?

“We do have data on this, but unfortunately a lot of that’s proprietary and I can’t get into the details and specifics of that,” says Walton.

A predictable answer but we had to ask.

It was a condensed but informative view of what happens in a day at the Kapuskasing winter proving grounds. It’s also an exciting time in the automotive industry and things are constantly in flux.

“It’s a dynamic environment, so it’s not the same mundane stuff day after day, says Walton. “Every day in Kapuskasing is something different and unique.”


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