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Calspan's crash test lab gets $20 million upgrade

Calspan Corp. for decades has prided itself on its expertise in crash-testing vehicles.

But its test facilities were overdue for an upgrade. Calspan would run its tests outdoors, exposed to the weather and perhaps prying eyes from hotel rooms near its Cheektowaga campus. The layout also limited how many tests Calspan could run per year.

All of that has changed. Calspan is taking the wraps off a $20 million new crash lab on its grounds. The 58,000 square facility resembles an aircraft hangar, with ample space for vehicle testing, storage and preparation. With the new facility, Calspan estimates it can run 500 crash tests a year, compared to 100 to 120 currently.

"This represents part of an ongoing investment on our part to create a transportation safety campus that we're going to continue to expand and have at the forefront and be the best in the country," said John Yurtchuk, Calspan's chairman.

The new lab is outfitted with German technology that CEO Louis Knotts called the "gold standard" of the industry. "In today's world, you have to very accurately crash a car right at a specific point because it's not all just front-end barrier testing any more. It's hitting a pole, hitting it at just the exact spot offset from center. And we can do that so much better with the new facility than the old facility."

Vehicles tested inside the facility are pulled by a tow-cable system, through a 680-foot rail running down the center of the floor. The system is powered by a 500-horsepower electric motor. Cameras inside and outside the vehicle track the results, with crash-test dummies playing the role of occupants.

Vehicles can be slammed into a wall at one end of the building at up to 75 mph. The wall itself was created using 15,000 bags of concrete, and extends 12 feet below the floor. At the opposite end of the building, employees can subject vehicles to a variety of other crashes.

Calspan officials said they were impressed with its crash-test team's productivity at its antiquated facilities, and knew the time had come to make an investment to capitalize on those employees' potential.

"We have established ourselves in the industry as very competent so we're very respected, our people are very respected, but our facility has not matched up with that at all," said Peter Sauer, executive vice president and chief operating officer. "We've heard that loud and clear for many, many years. So now finally we're linking a world-class facility that matches up with our world-class team."

Calspan runs crash tests for automakers and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. But the new facility opens the company up to another set of customers: nontraditional carmakers. These are developmental companies intrigued by advances like electric and self-driving vehicles, but want to conduct research without it being publicly known.

"They want to keep a very high level of secrecy," Yurtchuk said. "We designed it around those kinds of clients."

The state supported Calspan's project with $1 million worth of incentives, including $497,000 in Excelsior tax credits and a $400,000 grant.

Companywide, Calspan has about 500 employees, about half of whom are in Western New York. Yurtchuk estimates the new facility could lead to an additional 40 to 50 jobs at the company. Calspan is known for transportation research, in aerospace as well as automobiles.

As for the old crash-test facility, Calspan will still continue to use it — to test how well barriers withstand vehicles crashing into them.

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