The self-driving technology being road-tested by the likes of Google and Tesla could find its way into military vehicles sooner than later.
A U.S. Defense Department official said this week that the Pentagon was very interested incorporating autonomous technology into military vehicles, which could prevent fatalities due to improvised explosive devices — I.E.D.s — and make transport more efficient.
“I have a due-back to Army leadership on what we found, and my hope is that we will find a sweet spot for saying, ‘Let’s go out and start working with the existing technology,’” William Roper, director of the Defense Department’s strategic capabilities office, said at a conference hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, according to a Bloomberg Government report.
Of course, the U.S. military has already enthusiastically embraced unmanned vehicles, in particular aerial drones that are used for surveillance and to deploy missiles against foreign targets.
Last month, the U.S. Army’s Tank Automotive Research and Development Center conducted its own road tests of autonomous vehicles, sending a convoy of trucks last month down stretch of highway in Michigan.
While the trucks were manned with back-ups drivers, the vehicles’ autonomous systems successfully executed the seven-mile trip on their own — in traffic, no less — and the vehicles were able to “draft” each other, to follow in close proximity in a way that would cut down on fuel consumption.
But Roper’s recent comments suggest that the military, in the interest of getting the technology onto the battlefield as soon as possible, is interested in working with private technology companies.
“If you’re all reading the newspaper, what’s the commercial world working on? Ground vehicles that can navigate roads,” Roper was quoted as saying.
Indeed, a day after Roper’s comments, U.S. and British military authorities announced a plan to seek contracts to furnish autonomous vehicles that would be used to transport supplies. A central goal would reportedly be to avoid fatalities caused by IEDs, which have been fixtures in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
So far the discussion has centered on the use autonomous vehicles for transport purposes; the development of robot tanks and the like are seen as years away.
Existing self-driving technology relies heavily on the known features of roadways, their dimensions, markings and signals — features that would be thoroughly lacking on a foreign battlefield.