Learning What it Takes to be a Master Test Driver and Expert Listener – Technologue

This space is usually dedicated to advances in inanimate technologies—scientific inventions created by experts. But this month I was invited by two companies to experience firsthand the training each invests in the experts responsible for those innovations.

Harman develops premium audio systems for 25 automakers under nine brand names. To ensure each sounds both excellent and brand-unique, the company has trained 100 expert listeners in five countries. Each must pass a hearing test and demonstrate an ability to identify variations in seven bands of audio (such as on an equalizer). That’s spectral analysis. Spatial performance is a system’s ability to place each instrument or vocal input on a soundstage. Dynamics is about clarity at varying volume levels. Integrity has to do with buzzing, squeaks, and rattles in the system installation. Experts assess these four attributes as they listen to seven audio tracks per car on 200 cars per year, comparing each against 400 reference cars.

Acoustics manager Brad Hamme plays several paired snippets of music for me, varying only by an alteration in one band or another. Well, sign me up for a Harman internship—I manage to identify a few correctly! He then invites me into a Ford Edge with the latest B&O Play system to hear demo tracks from multiple genres, pointing out where various instruments appear to be and noting how the system maintains soundstage ambience at various volumes. Hamme also instructs me on audio-evaluation vocabulary—words like rich versus muddy, nuanced versus honky, crisp versus harsh. By the end, my tin ear has matriculated to, perhaps polypropylene?

Days later I spend an afternoon sampling Ford’s two-week, 80-hour Tier IV high-performance driver training program. Offered to the most promising drivers with five years of experience at the more limited Tier III level, these 20 or so “top guns” often contribute to multiple programs, whereas the 300 or so Tier III folks typically get assigned to specific projects. (The two lower tiers are for moving cars around and simpler subjective analysis of sub-limit behavior below 100 mph.)

I start out on a wet, 200-foot-diameter skidpad in a Mustang GT with winter tires in back. The exercise is to sense incipient slip and hold a continuous drift. Chief instructor and throttle whisperer Ben Maher coaches me to look farther around the coned circle and to limit my throttle regulation to a narrow band of between 60 and 80 percent, as my occasional lifting is repeatedly hooking up the tires. Within maybe 40 minutes I’m out of breath and drenched in sweat—but holding my drift. Next up: figure-eight drifts, connecting to a smaller 50-foot-diameter circle. This is super tricky, as the transition past straight ahead must be quick but not too quick, or the car will spin. It does so again and again, as I learn to quickly center the steering wheel to reduce the violence of these spins. I eventually master this transition (but not the one back onto the larger circle) before we switch vehicles and exercises.

Next I focus on detecting incipient roll in the “buggy of fun”—an old Explorer Sport Trac outfitted with 250 pounds on the roof and a stack of weights that can be adjusted vertically in the back. It also has outriggers to prevent wear on its exoskeletal rollcage. Here my objective is to slalom the truck, increasing speed and/or steering input rate until a wheel (or wheels) lift, then steer out to prevent the rollover. I manage several lifts, with the outriggers only touching twice.

We end my session by autocrossing the mighty Mustang FP350S—Maher’s new favorite Ford, which has zero potential to roll over but plenty of incipient drift to sense (precipitating one “recon” spin) before the tires heat up. As the tires and my abilities come up to speed, Maher urges later and later braking off the long straight, and soon I’m lapping at about 70 percent of his speed—and feeling like another 76 hours of his tutelage might just close that gap.

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