Research Magazine

Auburn Research
Fall / Winter 2021
Reinventing the Wheel

Auburn University has been the state’s research leader in many fields and disciplines for decades, but this year the university has taken another step forward as a regional and national leader through the formation of the Auburn University Transportation Research Institute.

Established in 2021, the Auburn University Transportation Research Institute provides a unified presence and strategic direction for promoting the renowned transportation-related research conducted within the academic departments and research centers in the Samuel Ginn College of Engineering.

The institute serves as an umbrella for units that are heavily involved in transportation research, including the National Center for Asphalt Technology, or NCAT, and its affiliated asphalt test track, the Highway Research Center, the Alabama Transportation Assistance Program, or ATAP, and the GPS and Vehicle Dynamics Laboratory, or GAVLAB. In fiscal year 2020, these various centers secured a combined total of more than $24 million in extramural funding for research, education and outreach efforts. This level of extramural funding for transportation is greater than any other single research topic on the Auburn campus.

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The institute, hosted and supported within Auburn’s Samuel Ginn College of Engineering, will provide greater visibility and a shared identity for all transportation-related research and educational programs at the university. It will foster continued growth and expansion of Auburn’s rich history in its transportation research programs, ranging from advanced roadway design to aviation systems, next generation vehicles and transportation-related logistics. It will also help elevate these programs to a position of greater national prominence based on the scholarship generated by its participating faculty.

“While each of these programs has proven to be highly productive individually, we believe that the time is right to create an administrative structure that will heighten our stature as a powerful force in transportation research and subsequently enhance our ability to produce even more growth in our transportation research programs,”
said Dr. Steve Taylor, associate dean for engineering research.

Dr. Laurence Rilett, one of the nation's foremost transportation thought leaders, has been tapped to lead the institute. Rilett 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 the director of the Mid-America Transportation Center and the Nebraska Transportation Center.

“Our nation faces a grand challenge in the design and implementation of the next-generation transportation infrastructure. While Auburn engineers are already well known for their contributions to our nation’s transportation systems and infrastructure, Dr. Rilett will help us lead an institute that will heighten our stature as a powerful force in transportation research and education, while also strengthening our ability to address this critical national challenge,” said Dr. Christopher B. Roberts, dean of engineering.

Rilett, who will also hold the Ginn Distinguished Professorship in the Samuel Ginn College of Engineering, has been a principal investigator or co-principal investigator on more than 40 research projects pertaining to intelligent transportation systems applications and large-scale transportation system modeling. He is also the incoming president of the Council of University Transportation Centers.

Cows standing in a field

He holds a bachelor’s and master’s degree from the University of Waterloo and a doctoral degree from Queen’s University. In addition to his distinguished career in the University of Nebraska system, he has held professorships at the University of Alberta and Texas A&M University. He is a registered professional engineer in Texas.

“What is truly exciting about leading this institute is the opportunity to work with the excellent faculty, staff and students who have put Auburn University on the map in terms of innovative transportation research, education and technology transfer initiatives,” Rilett said. “I am a big believer in multi-disciplinary research, and bringing all of Auburn University’s transportation-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 strengthened its commitment to deliver engineering solutions to transportation challenges for the Alabama Department of Transportation, or ALDOT, in 1985 with the creation of the Auburn University Highway Research Center. The center, led by director Dr. Anton Schindler and supported through the work of faculty in civil and environmental engineering, has contributed advancements to the transportation sector that include: 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, all of which have saved Alabama taxpayers countless millions of dollars in road and bridge construction and maintenance costs.

More than $24 million in extramural funding for research in FY '20

In 1986, in partnership with the National Asphalt Pavement Association Research and Education Foundation, Auburn created the National Center for Asphalt Technology to provide practical research and development to meet the needs of maintaining America’s highway infrastructure. NCAT, led by director Dr. Randy West, provides the most comprehensive asphalt pavement research program in the United States that attracts millions of dollars in research funding each year from outside the state of Alabama.

The work of NCAT is supported by ALDOT and the transportation departments of many other states, saving these organizations an estimated $160 million per year. NCAT operates 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, which has led to advancements in pavement design, construction and maintenance across the country.

The Alabama Transportation Assistance Program led by director Dr. Rod Turochy and working in conjunction with the Highway Research Center, is an organization created to bring the newest developments in technology to state and local public works agencies in Alabama. ATAP combines the resources of three organizations: the U.S. Department of Transportation, ALDOT and Auburn University.

Cows standing in a field

Training seminars are a significant part of ATAP, using the expertise of professionals from throughout the region. Seminar topics covered in the past have included value engineering, public works management and railroad highway grade crossing improvements, among others. Seminars are taught at locations throughout Alabama.

In 2001, Auburn’s Department of Mechanical Engineering created the GPS and Vehicle Dynamics Laboratory. The GAVLAB focuses on the control and navigation of vehicles using GPS in conjunction with other sensors, such as inertial navigation system sensors. The laboratory has several research thrusts including: sensor fusion/integration, online system identification, adaptive and robust control algorithms and vehicle state and parameter estimation, and is led by Dr. David Bevly, the Bill and Lana McNair Professor of mechanical engineering. This group consistently secures funding of approximately $5 million per year, and its research sponsors include manufacturers of automotive, industrial, agricultural, forest and construction equipment.

Cows standing in a field

Through the years, Auburn’s Highway Research Center, NCAT, ATAP and the GAVLAB, coupled with numerous collaborating units at the university, have established themselves as the foremost entities in the state of Alabama and the region to provide engineering solutions that advance safe, durable and sustainable asphalt pavements, roadways, bridges, transportation infrastructure and vehicle guidance and automation technologies.

“This institute will be the vehicle to move Auburn’s transportation programs to the forefront of innovation and competitiveness through the 21st century,” said Dr. Jim Weyhenmeyer, Auburn’s vice president for research and economic development. “Transportation problems of the future will involve multidisciplinary work, and the Auburn University Transportation Research Institute will move Auburn into position to solve these real-world problems.”

Last updated: September 30, 2021