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Extreme Testing for Hydrogen Cars


Jackie Birdsall, senior automotive engineer for the Toyota Mirai hydrogen-fuel-cell car, is responsible for testing the company’s prototype hydrogen-powered vehicles. PHOTO: JOSEPH PHILIPSON FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL


Jackie Birdsall pushes vehicles to their limits for a living.

As a senior automotive engineer for the Toyota Mirai hydrogen fuel cell car, Ms. Birdsall, 32, and her Los Angeles-based team hit the road a few times a year for a couple of weeks of rigorous testing.

Their typical destinations include California’s Death Valley, where summer temperatures routinely top 115 degrees Fahrenheit, and Yellowknife, in Canada’s Northwest Territories, where winter temperatures can hover near 20 degrees below zero.

In addition to the usual auto tests, such as speed, handling and weathering the elements, Ms. Birdsall has been subjecting the vehicle’s hydrogen cylinders to high pressure, blunt impact and open flame.

Among the routine gear the team brings along are spare tires, car jacks and portable radio antennas for walkie-talkies. Ms. Birdsall carries a spare hydrogen-refueling attachment in her bag and a hand-held hydrogen detector to monitor fuel cylinders for leaks before and after testing exercises.

Plastic zip ties are another must. “These vehicles we’re testing are real prototypes. None of the parts are finalized. The windshield washer fluid will be in a baggie zip-tied to the car,” she says.

Ms. Birdsall packs a straw hat for testing trips to the desert, and insulated Sorel boots for the far north. And she brings driving gloves for when it is her turn to take the wheel. She has advanced-driver-training certification, which took her through ice tracks, skid tests, spin recovery and high-speed maneuvers in Toyota cars. The fastest she has driven is 140 miles an hour, she says. “The coolest part is realizing what these vehicles can do.”

Most car makers use the same extreme test sites. “There’s one hotel in Death Valley, and you’ll walk in and see a table of Germans and a table of Japanese, and we all know we’re there doing the same thing,” Ms. Birdsall says.

On test missions, the team is forced to play cat and mouse with automotive-spy photographers. Ms. Birdsall packs plenty of tape, to cover up any Toyota logos on her clothing and equipment. The car gets a vinyl coating with a black-and-white-swirl pattern to hinder a camera’s autofocus. And the team will drive in a protective convoy of several cars, to block auto paparazzi from getting too close.

On one of the team’s first test drives, in 2012 in Death Valley, a group of photographers jumped out of the bushes during a pit stop. Ms. Birdsall says she and her fellow engineers tried their best to shield the early prototype, which was still years from completion.

“We did a great job making sure the vehicle was always blocked when we were driving,” she says. And the team used code words when communicating by walkie-talkie to keep the Mirai’s identity secret from eavesdroppers. But the only way to refuel in the desert was with a mobile hydrogen refueling trailer that said ‘Hydrogen, Compressed’ in big letters on the side, which gave them away. It was the first time the prototype was photographed in the U.S.

Toyota released the first U.S. model of the Mirai in October 2015 in California, and Ms. Birdsall is currently working on Toyota’s next generation of fuel-cell vehicle.

Ms. Birdsall grew up in Sacramento, Calif., the middle of five children to parents--a veterinarian and an education lobbyist--who were baffled by her interest in cars, she says. She was a snowboarder, loved “The Fast and the Furious” movies and collected die cast model cars.

At school, she excelled in science and math. She enrolled in auto-shop class in high school, but the teacher confined her to a computer while letting the boys work on the engines. That infuriated her, she says, but she learned the mechanical skills from her friends after class.

Her first work in the auto industry came at 17, with a part-time job at a local Pep Boys auto-repair shop. “I badgered the poor manager everyday for weeks” until he hired her, she says. “I was relentless.”

Jackie Birdsall, senior automotive engineer for the Toyota Mirai hydrogen-fuel-cell car, tests the vehicles in extreme climates, such as Death Valley and Yellowknife, Canada. Among the items she packs for testing trips, clockwise from top left: Some favorite books, ‘The Reckoning,’ by David Halberstam, and ‘Iacocca: An Autobiography’; Sorel boots for cold climates; hydrogen detector to check for leaks; winter mittens; company hat; hand warmers; Inukshuk charm for safe journeys, zip ties; safety goggles; straw hat for hot climates; and satellite radio. PHOTO: JOSEPH PHILIPSON FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

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