Pothole Protections: Stellantis provides exclusive look at how they test vehicles to withstand potholes

Vehicle engineers tell News4 what to do to save your cars from potholes.
Published: Apr. 14, 2022 at 8:00 AM CDT|Updated: Apr. 14, 2022 at 6:19 PM CDT
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WSMV) - It was a pothole mishap Rebecca Stewart from Smithville, Tenn., never expected.

“The curtain side airbag went off and hit our daughter in the head and caused a mild concussion,” Stewart said.

The vehicle’s manufacturers told her that after reviewing the incident, it was possible that the impact from hitting the pothole could have triggered the deployment.

“For manufacturers, I’d like to see them at least make an attempt to fix it where this stuff don’t happen just from hitting a pothole,” Stewart said.

News4 Investigates went from Music City to the Motor City where American car manufacturers are located to see how they test the durability of their vehicles to withstand potholes.

Big ones, small ones and every size in between. When it comes to testing potholes, Stellantis engineers not only drive over them, they build them at the Chelsea Proving Grounds.

Chalma Road at the Chelsea Proving Ground in Michigan.
Chalma Road at the Chelsea Proving Ground in Michigan.(WSMV)

News4 Investigates asked engineers if it’s normal for an airbag to go off after hitting a simple pothole.

“Based on my experience, that does not sound normal,” David Eichberger, head of the Chelsea Proving Grounds, said.

Eichberger’s experience includes over three decades in the auto industry and the current head of the proving grounds. They handle about 85% of the company’s testing for brands like Chrysler, Dodge, Fiat and Jeep.

“We send very specialized vehicles that measure all of the potholes and all of the bumps and all of the trenches and all of the curbs,” Eichberger said. “We measure the forces. We give that information to the engineers.”

News4's Caresse Jackman takes a drive down Chalma Road at Chelsea Proving Ground in Michigan.
News4's Caresse Jackman takes a drive down Chalma Road at Chelsea Proving Ground in Michigan.(WSMV)

Stellantis allowed News4 to see how it works firsthand.

“We’re gonna head out to our famed Chalma Road. This is a road that we constructed on a very difficult course found in Mexico many decades ago,” Eichberger said. “It hits over 1 million potholes in just four months.”

Providing valuable information with real-world application.

“We don’t want the test to be too easy cause then our vehicles will have quality issues in the field,” Eichberger said.

From Chalma Road, engineers then study and analyze the pothole hits in a lab in Ann Arbor, Michigan. It’s here that Mark Champine and other workers analyze the information from Chalma Road in real time with the help of a simulator.

“We can take vehicles instrumented that have those extreme conditions and take the data from that, essentially transfer that data into the computer and load it with a test set, the exact same drive signature that you had on the proving grounds on this equipment,” Champine said.

Engineers at a test lab in Ann Arbor, Mich., conduct tests based on the data obtained from cars...
Engineers at a test lab in Ann Arbor, Mich., conduct tests based on the data obtained from cars driven on Chalma Road.(WSMV)

For Champine, it’s about doing everything in the lab and on the proving grounds to keep you save when you get behind the wheel.

“To me, the most satisfying thing is when it all comes together and we see how it performs in the field and in customers’ hands and get that feedback, and you see a letter from a mother who is just thankful that the vehicle protected their child in an accident, it’s super satisfying and very rewarding,” Champine said.

A rewarding feeling of keeping drivers safe, no matter what roadblock comes their way.

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