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It may still be a while until the self-driving vehicle revolution fully reaches the public, but the military is chomping at the bit to unleash the technology on the battlefield. According to the Pentagon, the U.S. armed forces are eyeing autonomous vehicle technology as a new means of force protection – saving soldiers’ lives. And they believe they will have the technology in their hands before civilians.
Michael Griffin, the Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, said that over half of all casualties in combat zones occur when military personnel are out delivering fuel, food, and other necessities or executing other logistical activities. Self-driving vehicles could be used to carry out these tasks instead, preventing human military personnel from engaging in these duties where they’re vulnerable, thus potentially greatly reducing the loss of life in combat zones.
Griffin believes the Pentagon is correct in asserting they will have self-driving cars before they become prevalent in the public. And with good reason — self-driving vehicles in combat operations don’t necessarily have the challenges of worrying about traffic signs or avoiding pedestrians, and they don’t have to meet as many strict regulatory requirements as the ones on US streets.
Of course, self-driving delivery vehicles are just the start for the military. Self-driving tanks, bomb disarmament vehicles, and reconnaissance vehicles are all certainly assets the military would love to have.
Still, it’s likely going to be a long time before robotic military vehicles appear on the battlefield. Karlyn Stanley, a senior researcher at the Rand Corporation who studies autonomous vehicle technology, says the military is taking its time to ensure that the integration of self-driving vehicles is done right:
The military is going very carefully and slowly with this, and initially they’re looking at automated vehicles, which means not fully autonomous. 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.
What will this mean for our utopian self-driving dreams? Hopefully, it means that more money will start being thrown at autonomous vehicles, speeding up R&D. More likely, though, it means the military might co-opt or augment existing systems to meet their needs, landing some lucky company a cushy government contract.
Whatever the effects will be, armed forces research departments are hopeful that self-driving military vehicles will save lives on the battlefield. IED attacks and ambushes on supply convoys have become common in many combat areas. If these supply and logistics vehicles could be automated, it means fewer soldiers will be put in harm’s way.