Transportation Research Under One Umbrella…

Transportation research at Illinois has historically spanned multiple disciplines, such as computer and information sciences, engineering, geosciences, and life, physical, and social sciences. Each of those branches of knowledge have accomplished distinctive research advances over the years. However, all such scientific investigation has been done so far under the banner of a singular field of study, which led the College of Engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) to announce the Smart Transportation Infrastructure Initiative (STII)—to harmonize all transportation research under one umbrella. 

STII is envisioned “to improve safety, mobility, security, and connectivity and reduce energy, consumption, and emissions for the next paradigm of transportation systems, including roadway, air, rail, water and intermodal.” Two main focus areas for this initiative are the development of research and policy in support of safe and automated mobility of people and goods and the fulfillment of national and global connectivity needs.

Bliss Professor of Engineering Imad Al-Qadi, director of the Illinois Center for Transportation and the Advanced Transportation Research Engineering Lab, has been appointed director of the Initiative.

“Advances in computing, robotics, and artificial intelligence have enabled revolutionary technologies such as autonomous and connected vehicles to emerge, and these next-generation systems hold the promise to completely change the paradigm of transportation efficiency, sustainability, resilience, and safety,” Al-Qadi said.

On the level of system operations, next-generation transportation systems aim to influence or replace human behavior and to enable coordinated strategies that improve system performance on key multimodal transportation links and intersections. On the other hand, on the infrastructure level, implementation of next-generation transportation technologies will mandate principles and guidelines for the design, maintenance, and rehabilitation of future physical assets such as sustainable smart infrastructure materials capable of directly communicating and interacting with vehicles and other types of urban infrastructure facilities. As such, the need for all-embracing research in the technology, engineering, planning, regulatory, policy, legal, and social spheres of next-generation transportation systems becomes obvious.

Research is needed on new technologies and innovations that extend beyond the immediate scope of vehicle and transportation infrastructure systems, well into machine-and-human system integration at the microscopic level and network-level control and coordination at the macroscopic level; security and fault tolerance; verification and validation (V&V) of new methodologies; and the flow and infrastructure performance implications of autonomous and connected vehicles.

Even though air, land, and water transportation have registered major advances in recent years, the challenges that are yet to be overcome are numerous. For instance, the benefits of connected and autonomous vehicles can only be realized if and when technology innovators, manufactures, and infrastructure planners change current practices and strategically prepare for the next-generation of people and goods mobility, including e-commerce. Also, there is the need for government agencies to adopt new regulatory policies and laws that would enable the assimilation of emerging transportation technologies and operation concepts into our multimodal transportation network. Connected and autonomous mobility entails multiple levels of intra- and inter-agency coordination and process redesign that pose an additional challenge.

In its first grassroots meeting held December 18, 2017 to kick-off the discussion about a strategic action plan for achieving STII’s vision, more than a hundred department heads, unit directors, and faculty members came together to identify the challenges and opportunities associated with this initiative, major research ideas, and ways to position Illinois as a leader of transportation research.

For a full view of the kick-off STII meeting, please click here.

In his opening remarks, Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs and Provost Andreas Cangellaris said that this initiative is set not only to bring the entire UIUC campus together but also to strengthen collaboration between three Illinois campuses—UIUC, the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), and Northwestern, serving as the umbrella through which all transportation research will be coordinated. STII will also unite industry and national laboratories and Chicago’s role as a global hub should help promote the initiative’s mission, according to Cangellaris.

Also at the meeting, Al-Qadi shared recent national transportation statistics, touching on the national impact of the sector on the environment and the main challenges hindering national transportation development. Congestion costs—estimated at an annual $160 billion—inadequate revenues, the nation’s vulnerability to disasters, and the gap between institution’s missions and their preparedness to address those missions were highlighted as some of the key hindrances.

“Having identified our strengths and challenges, we need to focus now on developing a roadmap for addressing our connectivity needs and drafting our policy agenda,” Al-Qadi said. “Only then we will be able to facilitate the integration and deployment of new concepts and technologies in areas such as sensing and control systems, internet of things, autonomy and connectivity, and several others, while developing policies, outreach, and training for the future workforce.”

The attendees were proactively involved in identifying existing challenges and research needs in this area within breakout sessions led by faculty members; each session resulted in a summary of ideas that was later used to distinguish STII’s main research themes.

Autonomy and connectivity were identified among the main themes. Connected and autonomous vehicle technologies are expected to bring users greater convenience, seamless and safer mobility, and connected life in a digitalized world; for cities and operators, the benefits are greater efficiencies and better utilization of resources. In the context of commercial vehicle systems and freight supply chains, driverless vehicles will enable new forms of mobility supply, car sharing, integration between personal transportation and public mobility, and efficient and accessible travel service in high-density cities. Last year, a team of faculty from several schools at UIUC, in collaboration with peers from UIC and Northwestern, put together a vision for the Illinois Automated and Connected Track (I-ACT).

Proposed to be housed within the ATREL facilities, the I-ACT test track is aimed to accelerate the development and deployment of automated transportation, while ensuring safe and efficient mobility and operations and capitalizing on public benefits. STII is well positioned to coordinate the work needed to transform such a collective vision to reality.

If you are interested in learning more about the activities of STII, please join the notification list.

Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs and Provost Andreas Cangellaris opened the STII kick-off meeting.

Bliss Professor of Engineering Imad Al-Qadi discussing the national impact of the transportation sector on the environment at the Smart Transportation Infrastructure Initiative’s kick-off meeting.

Faculty across campus attending the kick-off meeting of the Smart Transportation Initiative.

A discussion of main challenges at one of the breakout sessions moderated by Professor Bill Spencer of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.