Safety from the land of the ice and snow

A rare peek into Bosch’s Baudette, Minn., proving grounds – a North Star Electric Cooperative business member – reveals a mission of winter driving innovation.


Kaylee Cusack


February 16, 2024

On a 625-acre slice of frozen land wedged between Canada and the far-north town of Baudette, Minn., lies a haven for those seeking automotive adrenaline and engineering excellence. It’s the highly remote (and decidedly private) Bosch proving grounds, one of 10 sites around the world. From the end of November to the start of March, clients and associate engineers can use the facility’s several ice- and snow-covered test tracks to push their prototype vehicles and internal systems to the limit and refine performance and safety.

When Bosch started scouting a new winter proving grounds location in 1991, they combed a lot of areas before finding the quiet community of 900 people.

“The criteria were, primarily, that we wanted someplace that was really cold, with not a lot of snow, but enough snow, and in a place where no one can find us,” said Bosch Engineering Manager Joe Miller. “It’s top secret. Bosch’s Area 51, if you will.”

Baudette's Bosch proving grounds is using the natural landscape to push prototype vehicles to their limits. (Minnkota/Michael Hoeft)

If you want to be one of the lucky few to drive the Baudette tracks, you first need to make it through Bosch Lead Driving Instructor Greg Vandersluis, who runs the site’s drivers training program. He teaches employees and clients how to safely complete high-speed maneuvers that will throw their vehicles sideways on low-coefficient-of-friction surfaces and stress their control and braking systems.

“It qualifies our associates to drive on our facility,” said Vandersluis, a competitive racecar driver, adding that his style of training is not for the faint of heart. “Oh yeah. They freak out.”

The work at the Baudette proving grounds is inherently dangerous. That’s why safety is a top priority. Miller explained the vehicles that make their way to the ice tracks are in an immature state of development, and they may or may not behave the way the driver thinks they will.

“We’re trying to equip them with the skill set for when it doesn’t behave the way it’s supposed to – it could be software, it could be tires, it could be suspension, whatever it is,” Miller said. “We’re trying to make sure we give them what they need to do their job. What we do here really does hit the limit of physics on the vehicles.”

Bosch Lead Driving Instructor Greg Vandersluis describes the various winter driving conditions found on the Baudette tracks. (Minnkota/Michael Hoeft)

There are two main business models of the Baudette facility. In one, Bosch will test its own automotive products and systems, which are incorporated in the vehicle lines of domestic and foreign automakers. In the other model, a startup or legacy company independent of Bosch will rent track time to take advantage of the robust test environment.

A couple hundred vehicles will find their way to the proving grounds in the winter. Bosch can’t tell you a thing about the makes, models and features – that’s confidential – but the team can tell you about the magic that happens there.

“The fact that we are making these safety systems, technology that is really helping save lives, reduce injuries and accidents – it’s important that people know what we’re doing,” said Michelle Cochran, Bosch Project Manager of Track Operations. “We hope people in the community are proud to have a company like us here.”

Creating a second home

Miller, Vandersluis and Cochran, along with Lead Track Coordinator Earl Curry, only call Baudette home during the winter. They spend the other nine months of the year in Flat Rock, Mich., home of Bosch’s other U.S. proving ground.

Amongst the four of them, they’ve experienced a lot of Minnesota winters. While most winters have been cold enough to freeze their eyelids shut, the winter of 2023-2024 has been an anomaly. Baudette has experienced one of the warmest winters on record, which is less than ideal for maintaining outdoor tracks of snow and ice. However, they have methods for sustaining the chill. The company that helps maintain the courses uses grooming techniques to preserve the surfaces even when it is warmer than average. The facility can also modify its hours so engineers can take to the track at 3 a.m., when the night is coldest.

The Bosch team takes a photo with Baudette's only traffic light, located within the Bosch facility. Pictured left to right: Greg Vandersluis, Earl Curry, Michelle Cochran and Joe Miller. (Minnkota/Michael Hoeft)

The site also features a cold chamber that can “soak” a vehicle in temperatures as low as 40-below-zero, turning the fluids to molasses-like consistency for performance testing. “When you buy that car, you should feel confident that it’s been put through its paces,” Cochran said.

With only three months of the year to obtain results, the Baudette proving grounds can’t be tripped up by unreliable power. The site is served by both Baudette Municipal Utilities and North Star Electric Cooperative, which have proven to be critical collaborators for Bosch. As electric vehicles (EV) become more prominent in the auto industry, Bosch continues to invest in EV charging capabilities. The team expressed gratitude that both entities are there to power those investments.

“We have computer systems, we have networking, and all of that requires energy and requires power. We already have a compressed season to come up here and work, and we have to have it,” Miller said. “We’ve been very fortunate – I can’t remember the last time that we’ve had a major power outage. And, when we’ve had a dip in power, we’ve had immediate response from either the municipality or North Star Electric to rectify the situation.”

Two years ago, Bosch and North Star Electric strengthened their collaboration with a building sale. Just before the pandemic in 2020, North Star had helped build a lineworker training facility in its own backyard. Unfortunately, COVID halted the cooperative’s plans, and they were left with a building they couldn’t effectively use. Bosch saw promise in the space, and after renting it for a season, they decided to buy the building to use as extra meeting and workspace for visiting clients.

“That was a really big windfall for us, and also very helpful for North Star. Even for the people in town who didn’t know what they were going to do with that building,” Miller explained. “This was a neat opportunity for a win-win-win situation.”

Bosch's traction hills have 10%, 15% and 20% grades of ice and asphalt to test traction control and downhill braking. (Minnkota/Michael Hoeft)

As the Bosch proving grounds continues to grow, so does its place within Baudette. Bosch has invested in trailer housing for associates and engineers who will be in town temporarily, and they’ve struck a deal with a local ice rink to give their team hockey time during lunch breaks. When Bosch’s crew of nearly 100 people comes to town in the winter, it impacts the economy of a town of 900 people in a sizeable way. They have become a part of the community.

“You become very good friends,” said Curry. “I’ve been doing this for 24 years, coming back and forth. In fact, my better half is from Baudette,” he added with a grin.

“Over the years, we’ve built a really great relationship with the community,” Miller agreed. “The people of Baudette are critical to our success. Without them, and their collaboration, we wouldn’t be able to do this.”

MAIN IMAGE: Greg Vandersluis performs a maneuver to demonstrate the safety and performance systems of a Lexus. (Minnkota/Michael Hoeft)


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