Thule test engineer Dan Wesolowski straps into the driver’s seat of a 2017 Chevrolet Silverado weighed down with a roof-mounted cargo box and a bike rack attached at the hitch. He hits the gas pedal and speeds toward a set of slalom cones on a test course in rural northwest Connecticut.
As the 5,000-pound pickup truck hits 35 mph, Wesolowski swerves left and then right before jerking the vehicle left again. He swerves back and forth multiple times and then slams on the brakes. The truck screeches to a halt. Wesolowski repeats the exercise a dozen times before looking to see if the equipment is still attached to the truck.
Sweden’s Thule, which has its North American headquarters in Seymour, Conn., builds bike racks, cargo boxes and roof rails for cars and trucks. And it’s Wesolowski’s job to find their limits.
“You always learn more when you break something,” he said. “We need to clearly explain why something happened and how.”
Every eight weeks or so, Wesolowski and his colleagues affix an assortment of the latest Thule products to the company’s Silverado and Volvo V60 wagon. Then they head out to the rack at Lime Rock Park, near Lakeville, Conn., to test Thule’s equipment
Data from these tests are compared with the results gathered abroad.
The side-by-side analysis helps Thule understand whether its latest products will pass international safety standards and if they can survive the demands buyers will inflict on them.
“We want to make sure people aren’t losing their bikes on the side of the highway,” Wesolowski said.
Thule engineers have seen equipment break, crack and snap in more ways in than most could imagine. In one test the arms on a hitch-mounted bike rack shattered when the truck hit a speed bump, sending the two bicycles crashing to the ground. The engineers call this “launching.” In the testing phase, it’s not uncommon.
Wesolowski’s tests have become increasingly important. Thule is the sales leader in vehicle cargo accessories, a segment that has seen steady overall growth in recent years thanks to a market of outdoor lifestyle enthusiasts.
In 2016, U.S. sales of bike racks and carriers reached 1.08 million units, a 27.7 percent lift compared with 2012, according to research firm Fior Markets.
And through the first six months of 2017, Thule’s sales in the Americas are up by 3.9 percent to more than $131 million compared with the same period in 2016, according to company filings.
Thule’s top competitor, Yakima, based in Lake Oswego, Ore., does not publish financial information but has seen moderate growth in recent years, spokesman Garrett Barnum said.
Water sports racks are increasing in popularity thanks to the emergence of stand-up paddleboarding, and Yakima recently launched its budget-friendly SkyRise rooftop tent that has become a big seller among pickup truck owners with an affinity for camping, Barnum said.
The growth comes as U.S. auto consumers have shifted away from small cars and sedans toward SUVs and pickup trucks that offer greater space and utility.
As new vehicles have been purchased at record numbers in recent years, U.S. buyers have rushed to outfit them with aftermarket products, Barnum said.
“About 80 percent of our racks are sold to owners when they’ve bought a vehicle in the last six months,” he said.
To feed the demand, Thule engineers typically work on six to 10 major product redesigns at a time, plus 15 to 20 minor updates and revisions, Wesolowski said. Thule creates unique designs to fit the specific dimensions of every passenger vehicle on the market – it adds up quickly.
Thule makes more than 1,300 different brackets and over 450 pads, said Chris Rine, chief test engineer at the company.
Accessories for pickup trucks such as the Ford F-Series, Chevrolet Silverado 1500-3500 and Ram 1500-3500 make up a significant portion of the company’s sales, Rine said.
Brands that are aligned with outdoor enthusiasts often take priority.
“If we’re not fitting a Subaru, we’re doing something wrong,” he said.
On The Track
On a recent day of testing, the Thule team arrived at Lime Rock mid-morning and set up shop on an acre of pavement in the center of the racetrack, surrounded by the exhaust notes of the local Porsche Club of America chapter that rented the course for the day.
Thule’s equipment was loaded up past its limits. The Volvo’s roof rack is rated to carry two kayaks of up to 75 pounds each. The engineers added weights to bring them to 95 pounds each and tossed in additional sandbags for good measure. On the Silverado, the bike rack is rated to carry two bicycles weighing up to 55 pounds each. Additional weights brought them to 90 pounds each.
In the Volvo, engineer Tranquillo Aloy zoomed around the cones, violently flinging the wagon to stress the kayak rack as much as possible. Later, when he examined the overloaded rack, the kayaks on board hadn’t moved a millimeter.
Wesolowski prepared for the Silverado test by gluing accelerometers – tiny metal sensors that measure precise acceleration forces – to the bicycles strapped into the Thule T2 Pro XT bike rack, the company’s flagship product.
Aloy jumped into the back seat, gripping a tablet to watch live data stream in from the accelerometers. When everyone buckled up, Wesolowski jumped on the gas and threw the truck squealing around the cones, its weight straining more to the side with each successive turn. Afterward, the sidewalls of the tires were clearly worn through the top layer of rubber.
“On a dry track we can usually get this thing up on three wheels,” Wesolowski said.
The next test mimicked an emergency evasive maneuver. The bicycles strapped to the hitch-mounted rack jostled violently under the stress, a good sign. Thule engineers want energy to dissipate through the racks, rather than absorbing it and inflicting more stress than is necessary. The idea is similar to “earthquake-proof” buildings that bend but don’t break, Wesolowski said.
Testing is a never-ending process for the Thule team. The basement of the Seymour facility is stuffed with high-tech equipment designed for destruction: a motorized “shaker” table to torture racks for hours at a time; a hydraulic press that exerts 1,000 pounds of pressure; a UV chamber, salt fog chamber, and environmental chamber—all used to expose Thule products to extreme weather conditions that accelerate rust and corrosion.
Those tests are only the first step toward bringing a new product to store shelves.
“It takes months of work to take something up to Lime Rock,” Wesolowski said.
As the racks and carriers industry continues to grow, its biggest players are attempting to make products more accessible and intuitive to the average American – not only the hardcore camper.
One of the highest priorities is “usability,” Wesolowski said. The T2 bike rack comes with a class-exclusive large handle at the front that makes it easy to tilt the bikes for loading and unloading.
Yakima has a similar strategy with the SkyRise, taking the rooftop tents that have been mainstays on African safaris and incorporating familiar materials and an affordable price point for mass appeal.
“It’s not just for someone with a rigged-out Tacoma on lift jacks,” Barnum said.
Thule, Yakima and others are racing to deliver the products their customers want and they want to make sure no one is disappointed.
“The purpose of the product is to help you go do the activity you want,” Wesolowski said. “That’s really what drives all of this testing.”
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