U of I autonomous vehicle track is building the future of mobility

6/21/2021 Emily Jankauski

Written by Emily Jankauski

A rendering of the proposed Illinois Autonomous and Connected Track in Rantoul, Ill.
A rendering of the proposed Illinois Autonomous and Connected Track in Rantoul, Ill.

Our nation’s transportation infrastructure is pushing its limits. From rapid population growth to booming e-commerce, the demand for a better way to move people and goods is ever increasing, and the advancement in mobility this past decade has been the fastest in any sector in more than a century.

The University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign has the drive to meet those mobility demands with its Smart Transportation Infrastructure Initiative — a consortium of government, academia, and industry partners developing and researching transportation infrastructure and capacities necessary for the next generation of mobility.

Its biggest ambition? Building a high-speed autonomous and connected vehicle track known as the Illinois Autonomous and Connected Track. 

The track houses high-speed freight platooning and vehicle loops, connected infrastructure and large data-handling. I-ACT features multimodal transport for road, air and rail, and it includes controlled and four-season climatic conditions.

Here researchers will study energy harvesting and electrification, dynamic vehicle testing, drone technology, agricultural testbed and market roads as well as urban, suburban and rural settings.

Imad Al-Qadi
Imad Al-Qadi

Imad Al-Qadi, STII director and UIUC Bliss Professor of Engineering, envisions I-ACT as a “state-of-the-art platform for innovation, testing, and policy and protocol development.”

“It is a flagship investment of a consortium of public and private sector partners who are building the future of mobility,” Al-Qadi said. “It brings the strength of the main transportation schools in Illinois, including Northwestern, University of Illinois at Chicago, UIUC, Governors State University, and several agencies led by IDOT and many industry potential partners.” 

“Together with local and state agencies, STII will identify pathways to safely scale and implement technologies to meet climate change and social equity goals, while having direct economic development opportunities locally and for the state of Illinois,” he added.

The track will stretch across approximately 430 acres at the former Chanute Air Force Base in Rantoul, Ill. STII has received funds from the university’s Investment for Growth Program as well as from university units, and the Illinois Department of Transportation. The Village of Rantoul has pledged more than 230 acres of land and buildings in support of this effort.

“Grainger Engineering innovation in smart, autonomous and multimodal transportation is poised to meet our society’s critical global mobility challenges,” said Rashid Bashir, dean of The Grainger College of Engineering. “The new autonomous track will fill the important need of training the future leaders in smart mobility and creating even more economic growth in this vital sector.”

Last fall, STII released a request for professional services qualifications to initiate I-ACT’s conceptual planning phase by hiring a professional service consultant. The consultant will work with UIUC to define alternative geometrics for I-ACT and outline its cost, schedule and scope as well as prepare schematic design and other requirements for the test site.

An aerial shot of I-ACT's location on the decommissioned Chanute Air Force Base in Rantoul, Ill. The track is conveniently located near Interstate 57, U.S. Route 45 and a rail corridor. IDOT approved ICT testing its autonomous and connected vehicle efforts on U.S. Route 45.
An aerial shot of I-ACT's location on the decommissioned Chanute Air Force Base in Rantoul, Ill. The track is conveniently located near Interstate 57, U.S. Route 45 and a rail corridor. IDOT approved ICT testing its autonomous and connected vehicle efforts on U.S. Route 45.



I-ACT is positioned to be a unique testbed for research in futuristic mobility. It touts a broad transportation ecosystem equipped with a multiplatform facility, including robust large-data management and security as well as access to diverse environmental scenarios.

In February, STII awarded eight projects led by university professors thanks to funds from the Investment for Growth Program. The projects tackle challenges such as securing autonomous vehicle communication to bringing affordable autonomous transportation services to rural areas. Anticipation for the projects’ completion is early 2022.

In January, researchers hit the ground running with a three-objective project, known as “Planning for Emerging Mobility: Testing and Deployment in Illinois.”

Here researchers will create a 5G integration plan as well as a sensor feasibility study. These efforts will help the development and management of vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communication. In addition, electrification efforts will provide and optimize electric vehicle charging options as well as energy harvesting.

Identification of key features for the track’s multimodal services will also be top of mind for the researchers as they consider the movement of people and goods.

A comprehensive business plan will also be developed, detailing future partnerships and providing a scope of I-ACT’s economic impacts. 

STII is also leading the work, with Northwestern and Illinois Autonomous Vehicles Association, in developing a Mobility 4.0 roadmap for Illinois. Here researchers are establishing a strategy to prep the state for autonomous and connected vehicle technologies.


Next steps

STII will poise Illinois not only as a leader in autonomous and connected vehicle technology research, but also in safely implementing this futuristic mobility thanks to the help of local, county and state agencies.

“CEE is excited for about the opportunities that the Smart Transportation Infrastructure Initiative and Illinois Autonomous and Connected Track will open to expand and further strengthen our transportation program and cross-cutting initiatives in infrastructure systems,” said Ana Barros, UIUC Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering department head. “In the next decade, our world class experimental facilities will enable innovative research that will no doubt have a transformative impact on transportation engineering.”

“We are looking forward to forging productive partnerships across academic, government and private sectors toward realizing their full potential,” she added.

The initiative promises great opportunity to uplift socioeconomically disadvantaged communities facing mobility and equity challenges.

Ultimately, I-ACT promises to develop safe, equitable, accessible, environmentally conscious and innovative multimodal transportation for all.


Illinois Autonomous and Connected Track

Take a tour of I-ACT, a planned state-of-the-art research-testing arena for the development, testing and commercialization of smart, autonomous and multimodal transportation.

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This story was published June 21, 2021.