Pssst! Next year's models over here

General Motors Desert Proving Grounds, a 5,500-acre tract of barren desert 40 miles southeast of Phoenix, is the Area 51 of automobiles.

The General, along with other major automakers, uses the brutal heat to test proto-types of upcoming models in unforgiving conditions -and to keep prying eyes away - much as the military uses a vast tract of off-limits Nevada desert.

The public is clearly unwelcome. Even the "visitors' center" at the Desert Proving Grounds is locked and the windows painted. Razor wire tops 8-foot ivy-covered fences in front of giant berms of earth.

Nobody can remember the last time journalists were admitted.

But for the FutureTruck competition, the steel gates opened -a crack.

Hundreds of academics and student engineers and a score of journalists were admitted - after writing down the serial number of every piece of electronic equipment:cameras, cellphones, tape recorders, and pagers -on the way in and out.

GM-employee-driven vans whisked us past parking lots filled with ordinary GM models and unidentifiable prototypes draped in black plastic disguise. Down miles of gravel road, we reached rutted washes where off-road capability is tested, or drove through tunnels to the center of a high-speed circuit to test acceleration.

Anyone caught pointing a camera the wrong way had the film confiscated on the spot. Stragglers at the testing venues were kindly, firmly herded back to the crowd.

Several times a day the sliding gates disgorge rare prototypes, usually in disguise, which has spawned a whole industry of spy photographers.

The proving grounds may soon have to move farther from creeping civilization. For now, though, they are ideal for the handmade FutureTrucks.

Reliability is key to the competition. In past years, when handmade parts broke far from the home lab, teams packed up.

Now, GM engineers help with technical advice. When a rare part breaks, "GM takes it over [to their shops] and brings us a new one in 10 minutes," says Mark Shuck, a graduate student at Texas Technological University.

Sometimes, though, even that's not enough. The off-road course, preceded by a drive through a 1/4-mile sand bog, can reduce any of these trucks to a pile of metal in a cloud of dust.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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