AUBURN, Ala. — Mentioning the words Auburn University might conjure up visions of a football powerhouse and the school’s former all-star quarterback, Cam Newton.
But what about transportation research?
That’s what many at the Alabama university are working on in hopes of making the nation’s infrastructure more sound in the decades to come.
In early 2021, Auburn University established the Transportation Research Institute (AUTRI) to meld together transportation-related research and educational programs at the school.
“Thanks to the reputation of the units under AUTRI’s umbrella, extramural funding for transportation is greater than any other single area within Auburn’s research footprint and totaled more than $24 million in fiscal year 2020,” a university news release states.
These units include the National Center for Asphalt Technology and its affiliated asphalt test track, the Highway Research Center, the Alabama Transportation Assistance Program and the GPS and Vehicle Dynamics Laboratory, just to name a few.
“Auburn’s transportation programs need to remain in the forefront of innovation and competitiveness through the 21st century,” said Jim Weyhenmeyer, Auburn’s vice president for research and economic development. “This institute will be the vehicle to do that.”
Behind the wheel is Larry Rilett, one of the nation’s foremost transportation thought leaders, who previously served as a distinguished professor of civil engineering and the Keith W. Klaasmeyer Chair in Engineering and Technology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, as well as director of the Mid-America Transportation Center and the Nebraska Transportation Center.
Rilett, who serves as AUTRI director and also holds the Ginn Distinguished Professorship in the Samuel Ginn College of Engineering, has been a principal investigator or co-principal investigator on more than 50 research projects pertaining to intelligent transportation systems applications and large-scale transportation system modeling. He has authored or co-authored more than 250 journal articles, conference papers and technical reports. Rilett is the current president of the Council of University Transportation Centers.
“I am a big believer in multidisciplinary research,” Rilett said. “Bringing all of Auburn University’s transportation and infrastructure-related research teams under one roof will position us to solve the complex challenges facing our nation’s multimodal transportation system and to educate the next generation of transportation professionals.”
Auburn has hosted the annual Alabama Transportation Conference every year since 1958, but its research and education in transportation engineering dates back nearly 150 years to the inception of Auburn’s Department of Civil Engineering.
In 1985, the university launched the Highway Research Center, which has saved Alabama taxpayers countless millions in road and bridge construction and maintenance costs through development of and guidance for the application of high-performance concrete in bridges, new designs for upgrading the structural capacity of steel girder bridges, new bridge load rating methods, new bridge foundation designs and construction guidelines, new sonic testing methods and scour screening tools for bridge foundations and new procedures to apply fiber-reinforced polymers in repairs of Alabama bridges.
In 1986, in partnership with the National Asphalt Pavement Association Research and Education Foundation, Auburn created the National Center for Asphalt Technology, or NCAT, which provides the most comprehensive asphalt pavement research in the United States. Attracting millions of dollars in annual research funding across the country, NCAT is home to the nation’s premier, full-scale asphalt testing center and a 1.7-mile oval test track that has seen nearly 10 million miles of heavy traffic.
The Alabama Transportation Assistance Program combines the resources of the U.S. Department of Transportation, Alabama Department of Transportation and Auburn University to bring the newest technological developments to state and local public works agencies in Alabama.
In 2001, Auburn’s Department of Mechanical Engineering created the GPS and Vehicle Dynamics Laboratory, which has earned an international reputation for research into vehicle dynamics and transportation, as well as autonomous and unmanned vehicles.
The lab consistently secures funding of approximately $5 million per year, and its research sponsors include manufacturers of automotive, industrial, agricultural, forest and construction equipment. A significant portion of its research is sponsored by the Department of Defense and provides a variety of engineering solutions for positioning, navigation and timing across all branches of the military.
From advanced roadway design and aviation systems to next-generation vehicles and transportation-related logistics, all aspects of Auburn University’s rich history of excellence in transportation and infrastructure research will be strengthened through AUTRI.
“Our nation faces a grand challenge in the design and implementation of the next-generation transportation infrastructure,” said Auburn Engineering Dean Christopher B. Roberts.
“While Auburn engineers are already well known for their contributions to our nation’s transportation systems and infrastructure, the Auburn University Transportation Research Institute will heighten our stature as a powerful force in transportation research and education, while also strengthening our ability to address this critical national challenge.”
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