New IDOT director: State ought to be leader in autonomous, connected vehicle research

Omer Osman, the director of the Illinois Department of Transportation, said Illinois should be a leader in autonomous and connected vehicle research. That research may take place in at the proposed Illinois Automated and Connected Track in Rantoul.

SPRINGFIELD ― Omer Osman’s dream of becoming an engineer came full circle earlier in February when Gov. J.B. Pritzker appointed him acting secretary of the Illinois Department of Transportation.

Such acknowledgment would be quite the feat for any civil engineer, but it was even sweeter for Osman, whose father only had a fourth-grade level education but made sure Osman and all nine of his siblings earned college degrees.

“I have been lucky in so many ways,” said Osman, who grew up in Kerma ― a village in northern Sudan. “It’s almost a dream.”

Even prouder of his accomplishment are his wife, Magda, sons Khalid (16) and Walid (14), and daughter Nadeen (12).

Osman, who received a bachelor’s degree at Southern University (Baton Rouge, La.) and a master’s degree at Bradley University ― both in civil engineering, now leads 5,100 “strong employees.”

At the top of Osman’s to-do list as acting secretary is ensuring the day-to-day work gets done.

“Obviously, you can’t do it alone,” he said. “The 5,100 or so employees I have, I’m extremely proud of them ― from management all the way down. They do a terrific job.”

IDOT has the third-largest interstate system in the U.S., according to the transportation agency’s 2017 annual report. With that in mind, Osman’s attention is focused on existing transportation infrastructure.

“It requires our attention on a daily basis, and the resources we are providing for our assets are lagging behind,” Osman said. “So our No. 1 priority ought to be to figure out how we could fund maintaining and repairing our transportation system to the level that’s acceptable, whether they are bridges or roadways or transit facilities.”

Osman also aims to put Illinois on the autonomous vehicle and testing facility map with the help of the University of Illinois’ transportation research center ― the Illinois Center for Transportation in Rantoul.

“We think the state of Illinois ought to be a leader in that segment,” Osman said. “The department and the state of Illinois in general must be involved in this and must not be left behind.”

For Osman, autonomous and connected vehicles are the “future of transportation.”

“That’s where the support comes in,” Osman said. “Research and a testing facility ― anything that (could) advance autonomous vehicles in general, whether it’s on the software side, whether it’s on the security side, whether it’s on the physical development of truck platooning, or otherwise, I’m supportive of that.”

Hoping to turn another of Osman’s dreams into reality is Imad Al-Qadi, director of ICT, who aims to build the Illinois Automated and Connected Track, an autonomous and connected vehicle test track near ICT’s current facility on the decommissioned Chanute Air Force Base in Rantoul, by 2021.

“The Illinois Automated and Connected Track will be a multi-platform testing arena,” Al-Qadi said. “We’re focusing on connected autonomous high-speed mobility — that’s where the future is. We are also focusing on freight transportation, all transportation modes, and 3D mobility. We’ll have a closed testing environment, an open municipal environment, an open high-speed road environment, 3D mobility and workforce training.”

The three-lane testing facility separates vehicles into two lanes allowing a dedicated lane for freights. The track will allow vehicles to travel up to 75 mph.

“The University of Illinois is a flagship for the state and specifically the (college of) civil engineering ― they’re a leader nationwide,” Osman said. “We do rely on the university to take the lead and help us advance our transportation system. I see it (the relationship) only growing.”

While new to his role, Osman, however, is no stranger to IDOT’s process, having started with agency in 1989 and going on to serve as a deputy director from 2016 until his appointment as acting secretary.

“My favorite part is getting to know other directors of other state agencies at this level and seeing what they do,” he said. “(It’s) getting to meet them and getting to know them and getting to see their issues, and maybe it’s even getting to think about how the department issues relate to another agency’s issues. At the end of the day, there’s quite the linkage between what all of us do collectively.”

The IDOT acting secretary said while it’s a “complex” role he fills, it’s one he feels confident in leaving a positive impact.

“I’d like to be known as someone who tried to be fair, who tried to bring fairness to our human processes, tried to be inclusive,” Osman said. “I’d like to be known as someone who earned the respect of the staff.”