Since its acquisition of the Nardo Technical Centre (NTC) in 2012, Porsche Engineering has been steadily updating its capabilities and currently uses the site for a variety of test programs, both for its own brands and other OEMs, including the development of AD and ADAS systems.
According to the company, testing of autonomous driving functions at SAE Level 4 (fully automated driving under specific conditions) are now part of everyday life at the NTC, however, continuous development of the NTC itself is also required.
“A revolution is looming in the automotive industry over the next 5-10 years, caused by trends such as autonomous driving, connectivity and e-mobility,” said NTC managing director Antonio Gratis. “We must adapt to this – with new infrastructure and new capabilities.”
For example, the inner circular track, which in the past was used primarily for testing commercial vehicles, was given 48km of new road markings in 2020. Now part of it looks like a three-lane European motorway, while another part is set up as a three-lane US highway. “The new road markings are crucial for us,” explained Davide Palermo, manager of the ADAS Competence Centre. “Without them, tests for autonomous driving functions on SAE Level 4 would not be possible.”
Porsche also notes that automation is starting to play a role in testing traditional driving functions, not just those for autonomous vehicles. For example, in February 2020, a Porsche Cayenne drove more than 600km at a maximum speed of 130km/h on the circuit – without human intervention. During the endurance test, the steering wheel and pedals were operated by a steering robot, and a test driver was only on board for safety reasons. “This form of test automation promises higher efficiency and better reproducibility,” noted Palermo. “But it cannot completely replace human drivers.”
Antonio Leuzzi, senior manager, project management, NTC, highlighted that constant refinement was necessary to ensure representative testing: “Last year we completely renewed the asphalt – and it is now so incredibly smooth that you don’t feel any vibrations even at high speeds. This is better for drivers and leads to more accurate results, for example in vibration measurements – especially important for electric vehicles with their inherently low noise levels.”
In addition to the improvements to the physical test tracks, Porsche is also working on the data infrastructure. In the future, a fiber-optic cable will act as a data backbone, connecting displays, traffic lights and transmitter masts along the route to enable communication between vehicles and the surrounding infrastructure (vehicle-to-infrastructure). To this end, the NTC has prepared the infrastructure for laying 91km of fibre-optic cable around the circular track and the vehicle dynamics platform.
The NTC is also working on its own mobile communications infrastructure, which will enable further tests of autonomous driving functions and vehicle-to-vehicle communication. And in a few years’ time, the new test area will welcome ‘Sim City’ – a city with moving houses and traffic signs, in which different urban scenarios can be set up for testing advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS).
Further investment in electric mobility infrastructure is also underway. Test center customers can recharge their electrically powered test vehicles at two rapid charging stations developed by Porsche Engineering. There are six such HPC (High Power Charging) stations at the site, four of them with 920V and 320kW, two with 950V and 350kW. “The NTC should be like a city of the future,” explained Salvatore Baldi, senior manager, facilities management, at the site. “That’s why we have installed all kinds of charging systems – from wall boxes with 7kW, 11kW or 22kW to 50kW charging stations and HPC systems.”
To put the vehicle batteries of the future through their paces, the NTC has also upgraded its fire test facilities. “There we can put electric cars and batteries in critical condition under a kind of quarantine,” said Baldi. “We pull them in with a winch and then close the container completely.” When smoke detectors sound the alarm as a battery reaches its limits, a sprinkler system starts to reduce the flames in the initial phase of the fire. At the same time the flooding system is activated, which pumps 800l of water per minute at a pressure of 6 bar into the container.
The NTC is also working on the expansion of workshop capabilities and the renovation of existing spaces. By 2022, plans envision building 20 modular workshops that can be flexibly adapted to the needs of the users. In addition to the modernized technical infrastructure, customers will also be able to benefit from more extensive engineering services for their test vehicles.
“So far, we have mainly rented out our testing grounds,” highlighted Gratis. “In the future we want to take on more turnkey projects: the customer brings their vehicle to the NTC and our team carries out all tests on site – right up to the final report and engineering recommendations. Customers benefit from reduced travel costs and greater efficiency because they get everything at the NTC from a single source.”
To implement this plan, Pierpaolo Positano, senior manager, engineering, is expanding his team of more than 70 engineers, mechatronics engineers, technicians and drivers, adding new skills in areas such as ADAS and e-mobility.
“We have gained a lot of experience in recent years, for example with reliability tests or tests on driving dynamics,” he noted. “Now we are facing new challenges, which we are meeting with specialized groups of experts – for example for NVH (noise, vibration and harshness), ADAS and electric drives. In the future, we will not just be able to offer kilometers on our test tracks, but also our know-how – in other words, higher-value services for our customers.”
“We are continuously developing our infrastructure, our expertise and our team,” concluded Gratis. “We always keep an eye on the megatrends in the automotive industry. And just as new technologies will soon revolutionize the driving experience, our test center is also moving into a new future. The NTC 2.0 is fast approaching.”