As the convoy traveled down Interstate 69, regular Michigan motorists might have not believed they were driving next to the future of warfare. But for all their humdrum khaki looks, these were platooning, semi-autonomous army trucks, moving as one organism.
Late last month, the army dropped these four beta trucks into real Michigan traffic, with human drivers aboard as backups. Over seven miles, the vehicles used cameras and LIDAR to watch the road. They used dedicated short-range radio, also known as vehicle-to-vehicle communication, to chat with each other and even with infrastructure Michigan’s DOT installed for the purpose, getting advance notice of things like changing speed limits and closed lanes ahead.
The US Army’s Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center is not the only big organization experimenting with autonomous trucks. Peloton Technology, Daimler, and a new startup called Otto are working in this space, too. But the US Army’s involvement could make armed conflict a lot safer for soldiers.
The trucks drove as a convoy of one, also called a platoon: When the leader braked, the others braked, too. That instant responsiveness allowed them to travel so closely together, each drafted off the truck in front of it, enjoying the limited wind resistance like Tour de France cyclists.
In 10 to 15 years, Army engineers say, fully autonomous truck convoys will be ready to serve in conflict zones. The reasoning’s obvious: “We do want to get soldiers out of the convoy vehicles, in case they could be on roads with IEDs,” says Alex Kade, who helps direct the Army center’s research in ground vehicle robotics. Robo-trucks could hump supplies around bases, or resupply soldiers at far-flung outposts.
Despite ethical questions around robotic warfare, the military is pushing ahead on autonomous technology, with everything from self-flying helicopters to robo-snipers, not to mention Predator drones.
But, for the trucks at least, there are challenges ahead. Like most other autonomous vehicles, the technology will need to reliably spot obstacles and use advanced computation to make split-second decisions, just like human drivers. It’ll have to navigate places where they can’t communicate with infrastructure, and where markings, signs, and pavement are out-of-date and poorly maintained. It’s a big challenge, but a nice reminder that fancy engineers and computers support the troops, too.
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