More than 40 years after the first Freightliner trucks were tested at what is now the Madras Municipal Airport, Daimler Trucks North America has officially opened its new, $18.7 million High Desert Proving Ground.
"We're excited to be here to help continue growth in Jefferson County," said Daimler President and CEO Roger Nielsen, of Charlotte, North Carolina, who spends about half his time working at the Daimler headquarters in Portland.
The new facility replaces the company's former testing grounds in South Bend, Indiana, which had several distinct disadvantages, according to Nielsen. "We didn't own it, we couldn't modify it, and we shared it with competitors," he said.
The proving ground includes a 32,000-square-foot office and shop facility, truck testing facility with a new durability track, fueling station, truck wash bay, test sheds, truck parking and outdoor use areas, all located on 87 acres of property under a long-term lease from the city of Madras.
Currently, there are about 17 employees at the Madras operation, but that number is expected to grown. "We will hire about 40 additional people who will help our engineers bring trucks to life here in Madras," said Nielsen, an Oregon native and graduate of Oregon State.
The company chose Madras because of its proximity to the Portland headquarters. "It's a long way to fly to Chicago and drive the rest of the way to South Bend," he said. "It's a short drive over the mountains."
Wilfried Achenbach, of Portland, senior vice president of engineering for Daimler, recalled the groundbreaking in March 2016, "A little over a year ago, we were on a pile of dirt. It was windy and cold. I was asking, 'When can I drive?' Six weeks ago, I drove."
"To some extent, (the new facility's) an engineer's dream," said Achenbach, who enjoys taking the big rigs out on the tracks. "You don't need a plane; you just need a car. You can feel it, you can touch it, and that's a huge benefit; it allows us to engineer a better product."
Daimler intends to have customer events at the track, so that people can test out their products on the nine-lane track, which features bumps, contours and irregular surfaces that mimic and exaggerate real-world conditions. A gradient hill features a 20 percent grade on one side and 5, 10 and 15 percent grades on the other.
"We have similar test tracks in Germany and soon in Brazil, because bumps are bumps wherever you go," said Achenbach, who previously worked for the parent company, Daimler AG, in Stuttgart, Germany, before joining Daimler Trucks North America in 2010.
A single mile on the test track is equivalent to 200 miles on a normal road, so with 6,000 miles on the test track, the company can approximate the wear and tear a truck would experience during 1.2 million miles of normal use.
Sean McKenna has been hired as the manager of the two-story Madras facility, which has seven work stations on the lower floor, and eight on the upper, as well as conference and break rooms on each floor.
Ten trade magazines, including two from Toronto, Canada, and eight from across the U.S., sent representatives to the grand opening.
"That helps us with product validation," said Dave Giroux, of the Portland office, director of corporate communications. "Their job is to get the word out to the fleets that demand the utmost in reliable, fuel-efficient vehicles."
Daimler, which purchased Freightliner in 1981, is the largest truck manufacturer in North America, with about 40 percent of the market share. Besides the Freightliner brand, Daimler also produces and markets other commerical vehicles, including Western Star and Thomas Built Buses.
Madras Mayor Royce Embanks said he was "excited and grateful for Daimler's long-term interest."
"It will have a positive impact in the city and county," he said. "It aligns directly with the city's mission and values."