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Posted: May 24, 2022 Read time: 2 mins

This article was originally published in Automated Testing's 'I'll never forget' feature, in which car engineers share extraordinary experiences from their careers. View the original article here.

Back during my time testing and evaluating vehicles for an OEM, one particular challenge took me driving the mountainous regions of Switzerland, Norway and Sweden in the midst of winter over a two-week duration. The project was a tyre and drivetrain evaluation, involving many vehicles and a team of 10 engineers and support staff. My responsibilities were to maintain the vehicles and confirm the safety of the proposed routes. Along with my driving and assessment duties, it was a busy and intense couple of weeks.

We were paired with colleagues for the duration of the event. I was paired with the project head from Asia who was overseeing the event, who had a limited grasp of the English language. This meant we had to converse via sketches and notes. I left the translation of the sometimes complex and technical elements to his Asian colleagues.

We drove challenging terrain and mountain passes, through snowy, icy and frozen roads, and fog and mist at the top of mountains – at times reducing visibility to just a few meters, which was all part of the challenge. It’s fair to say that, in two short weeks, we experienced every winter driving scenario one could face.

Not one word was spoken between my colleague and I, until one day.

To ensure the route was suitable for a test this one particular day, we had to drive up a steep, single-lane mountain track in a 4x4 equipped with snow tyres and suitably prepared for the challenging snowy terrain.

I drove slowly and carefully, picking my route with precision. Having travelled skywards for approximately 500m, there was terra firma to our right and left, a selection of spruce and pine trees lining the route, and enough road to turn around to make our descent.

Then, after only 10m further of driving, still ascending, the landscape changed considerably – and for the worst. Gone was the terra firma to our left. When my colleague and I looked out the window, what we could see was a very steep, sheer 150m-drop. The small pine trees we had seen were actually the tops of fully grown, tall pine trees!

But, we were on the correct tyres, in the right vehicle for the conditions. I forged my plan to select low range and reverse gear, and then let the vehicle ease its way back for 10m, with my feet off of the pedals; a simple and safe process for an experienced off-road driver who is prepared for the task.

Initially I felt calm, but the situation quickly became frightening. And with fear in his eyes, the project head suddenly screamed in broken English, “Very, very dangerous!”, making me jump. My heart rate began to rise and I felt very unnerved!

To our relief, I was able to successfully and safely implement my plan of slowly easing us backward. To this day, I remember how hair-trigger my emotional change was in that moment. At least my colleague and I finally exchanged a few words over our two-week assignment. ‘Very, very dangerous’ has become my silent mantra when assessing driving risk.

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