Comfort and convenience items are king. No longer satisfied with simple power locks or windows, today's drivers relish the convenience of remote keyless entry or doors that automatically lock as a driver slides the shifter into gear.

And there's no more searching for that garage door clicker, which - much like the ubiquitous TV remote control - has a knack for being out of sight when it comes time to use it. A push of a button in the sun visor opens the garage door - and will even turn on interior home lights from inside the car.

Drivers can even monitor tire pressure while driving. All thanks to advances in electromagnetic wave or radio frequency technology. Automotive interiors supplier Johnson Controls Inc. pushes the envelope of RF technology with its new state-of-the-art testing facility.

The 3,200-sq.-ft. (300-sq.-m) facility, located at the company's interiors technical center in Holland, MI, allows JCI to test the performance of its current electronic radio-frequency (RF) products such as Home Link (for garage doors and home lighting) and PSI (tire pressure safety information), and use that data to design new and improved electronic products for future automobiles.

Previous to the opening of the test facility, RF testing was done in less-than-ideal conditions.

"We were doing all of the testing in the back parking lot and a field behind the building," says Paul Duckworth, electronics lead design engineer for JCI.

The new facility gives JCI the consistency it lacked in the back parking lot. Mr. Duckworth says the unpredictability of the outdoors can affect the way the electromagnetic waves perform, seriously hindering an accurate assessment of JCI's RF products.

The facility was built without metal because metal interferes with the radio frequencies. The building's doors and bolts are made of fiberglass, screws are plastic and wooden roof trusses were glued together.

Mr. Duckworth adds that the test site gives JCI a competitive advantage over other suppliers in the areas of testing accuracy, testing speed, consistency and having a year-round site.

JCI is not the only supplier building new labs for electronics testing. Electromagnetic compatibility chambers, for instance, are becoming common among suppliers across the industry as vehicles are loading up on electronic features. JCI's primary competitor, Lear Corp., gained significant testing and electronics capability in its 1999 acquisition of UT Automotive. Plus, all major automakers conduct this type of RF testing and verification.

One of the most frequently tested performance variables is the maximum distance at which RF products will work.

The mostly automated test facility allows for the placement of a vehicle on a rotating, 360-degree turntable to measure the RF signal at 36 points around the vehicle. The facility also accommodates "range" testing to a distance of 328 ft. (100 m). A runway extending behind the building lengthens the facility's testing ability beyond the building's four walls.

To test JCI's Home Link, a remote receiver is set up away from the vehicle. Measurements are taken every 20 ft. (6.1 m) starting at 200 ft. (61 m). The vehicle then makes a complete rotation, stopping every 10 degrees for another measurement. A computerized control center records and documents the data.

The floor of the testing area is a wire mesh that acts as a giant mirror to the RF signals. With the reflecting floor and no other reflections in the building, the combination of incident and reflected signals remains consistent.

The supplier spent a year in construction planning and research. The front-end research paid off. In December, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) certified the testing site.

Every RF automotive product must meet FCC standards and be certified to "part 15" of FCC regulations. The products are certified by measuring the RF power received at a distance of 32 ft. (10 m) from the vehicle.

"Being able to test how the product performs when it is in the vehicle is a critical factor," says Jim Geschke, vice president of electronic integration for JCI.

Mr. Duckworth adds that a product like Home Link, for example, performs differently in different vehicles.

The test facility has the added benefit of providing security for automakers. "We can pull future model year vehicles into the facility and ensure that we are getting the maximum electronics performance out of our product as it interacts with that vehicle - away from the prying eyes of the public," Mr. Geschke says.

The test site will allow JCI to improve its RF products at a faster rate than ever before and hopefully faster than other suppliers, says Mr. Duckworth.

"With this site we will become a leader in understanding how electromagnetic signals enter and leave a vehicle."