Self-driving cars are synonymous with Silicon Valley and Detroit, with companies such as General Motors, Waymo, Uber and Ford racing to perfect driverless transportation.
But the military is pushing to make this technology an important priority, as well.
Finding new ways to lower the risk soldiers face from hostile actors — an effort known as force protection — has become a top priority for various branches of the military after sustained conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to Karlyn Stanley, a senior researcher at the Rand Corporation who studies autonomous vehicle technology.
Unlike the commercial sector, the military is primarily interested in using autonomous technology to save lives, she said.
During the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, American troops found themselves under regular assault from improvised explosive devices that targeted supply convoys and military patrols, killing and wounding thousands.
The IED has given rise to a multibillion-dollar industry in vehicle and body armor, robots, ground-penetrating radar, surveillance, electrical jamming, counterintelligence, computer analysis and computerized prostheses.
The Government Accountability Office says it’s impossible to estimate the total U.S. cost of fighting the bombs over two wars. But the Pentagon has spent at least $75 billion on armored vehicles and tools for defeating the weapons.
One of the major advantages of autonomous vehicles, according to military experts, is their ability to remove people from unnecessarily risky situations.
“You’re in a very vulnerable position when you’re doing that kind of activity,” Michael Griffin, the undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, said during a hearing on Capitol Hill in April, according to Bloomberg. “If that can be done by an automated unmanned vehicle with a relatively simple AI driving algorithm where I don’t have to worry about pedestrians and road signs and all of that, why wouldn’t I do that?”
Military engineers are closely monitoring autonomous technology in Silicon Valley and Detroit, Stanley said. They remain open to retrofitting their vehicles with existing commercial technology instead of expending “precious resources” to create new types of sensors like lidar, a technology that allows a driverless car to navigate by using a pulsed laser to measure the distance between objects.
Unlike Uber or Waymo, whose researchers are developing driverless technology adapted for American roadways, military researchers have an added challenge: developing technology that can adapt to conflict zones in conditions all over the world.
Autonomous military vehicles would need both the ability to go off road in many cases and have sensors that can determine whether a bush beside the road is a camouflaged enemy or merely a plant, Stanley said.
“The military is going very carefully and slowly with this, and initially they’re looking at automated vehicles, which means not fully autonomous,” Stanley said. “For example, vehicles that can drive themselves, but if they encounter certain weather conditions then a driver can quickly take over.
“There are currently many adverse weather conditions that the military would have to take over that we don’t see in urban driving — sandstorms, black ice and dust is another issue,” Stanley added.
Different branches are approaching the technology uniquely. The Army is interested in developing unmanned tanks and vehicles that can deliver supplies in conflict zones, whereas the Navy is exploring vehicles that may be able to put out fires on ships without placing human crew members at risk, Stanley said.
The Marines are also exploring autonomous vehicles, she said.