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Autonomous tractors plow path to the future at Caterpillar's secluded Peoria Proving Ground

Robert Channick, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Automotive News

Grounded in central Illinois throughout its century-long history, heavy equipment manufacturer Caterpillar has seemingly been smitten by corporate wanderlust of late, moving its headquarters from Peoria, Illinois, to Deerfield, Illinois, to Irving, Texas, over the past seven years.

But Caterpillar remains deeply rooted in the Peoria area with 12,000 employees, a major manufacturing operation and something few visitors have ever seen: a secluded 2,500-acre site where the company is carving a path to the future.

For more than 75 years, the Peoria Proving Ground has been the secret place where giant yellow earthmoving machines are tested, refined and readied to do the heavy lifting. Set back amid steep ravines, dense woods and winding roads in the nearby town of Washington, it is the company’s muddy nexus of innovation, with a legacy of groundbreaking product development.

“We’re really proud of our history and the things that we’ve contributed to this company over the years,” said Charlie Menke, director of machine development for Peoria Proving Ground. “The high drive track-type tractor was developed at this facility. The first electric drive track-type tractor was developed at this facility. We’re currently working on additional electric drive machines.”

How new equipment plays in Peoria, a bustling and historic city along the Illinois River, can move mountains around the world.

From massive electric drive bulldozers to autonomous tractors, 400 employees put the cutting-edge machines through their paces, testing sound levels, top speeds and remote control operations that make plowing the earth akin to a video game.


Launched in 1948, the sprawling facility is part nature preserve, part perpetual construction site.

The grounds feature test tracks, steep climbs designed to see what happens when a tractor tumbles blade over backhoe, and excavation areas where machines move piles of dirt back and forth from one side to the other in a Sisyphean task.

Fun fact: A Cat motor grader can hit 32 mph on the Proving Ground’s oval test track, Menke said.

The main compound includes a 50,000-square-foot repair shop, an industrial-strength car wash to spray gobs of mud off the field-tested equipment and a cavernous acoustic room that could serve as a recording studio, but instead measures a symphony of noises emanating from the giant machines.


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