Military exploring the use of autonomous truck convoys

The Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) and the Army’s Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center (TARDEC) have started testing technology that one day may lead to autonomous military convoys.

The two agencies collaborated on a field test on Interstate 69 June 23, testing vehicle-to-vehicle communications that could link the vehicles in a connected convoy scenario. For the June test, all of the army trucks had drivers.

Specifically, TARDEC is testing dedicated short-range communications, essentially a version of Car-2-X communication, which will aid in the development of autonomous cars. With the tech, the vehicles wirelessly communicate via Wi-Fi with roadside sensors as well as each other. Through the communication, vehicles can send and receive up-to-date information about speed, road and weather conditions.

Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work, the department’s point man on new technological developments, said he expects the Pentagon will have to adapt civilian technology to fit a military application in the future.

“In the commercial space, they generally are going after cars that will operate on paved roads,” Work said. “Whereas in the military, not only will we stay on non-paved roads, but when the roads become more dangerous we’ll go off-road. That kind of navigation is extremely difficult. I would expect us to see unmanned wingmen in the air before we would see unmanned convoys on the ground.”

In March, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, director of the Army Capabilities Integration Center, said the Army’s robotics and autonomous systems strategy was in final edits and would be released before the end of the year.

Part of that strategy involves experimenting with autonomy for convoys, said Scott Davis, the director of the Army’s Combat Support and Combat Services Support office.

Going full-autonomous “is going to be a while,” Davis said. The Army is bringing on the capability in gradual steps, bringing on by-wire active safety capability first, then the service will bring on leader-follower capability. The Army will “eventually” move into an autonomous convoy set capability.

“I would say the full autonomous convoy is probably in the mid- to late-2020s, but I would expect the Army would have leader-follower yet in this decade,” Davis said.

A number of defense industry firms, including Lockheed Martin and Oshkosh, have invested in autonomous technology for ground caravans. The idea is to eliminate danger to soldiers, who proved to be highly at risk while traveling in convoys across large areas of land in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Pentagon has made the development of autonomous systems a key part in its push for technological dominance over other world powers, namely China and Russia.

Some high-profile critics have questioned whether the Pentagon should be experimenting with such technology, including notables such as scientist Stephen Hawking, SpaceX and Tesla Motors founder Elon Musk, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak and linguist Noam Chomsky.

Work downplayed the concerns. “The word autonomy to us is very simple. It is nothing more than delegating decision authority to the entity in your battle network.” He said the first wave of autonomy in systems will be equivalent to the “easy park” button now found in some cars, which when engaged takes in data from sensors, runs it through an algorithm and guides the car into a parking spot for the driver.

“We will have certain things like that in our battle network but we will not delegate lethal authority for a machine to make a decision.”

Companies such as Peloton Technology, a developer of vehicle systems that deliver advanced safety, fuel savings and analytics to trucking fleets, will factor into the mix of future truck platooning.

Peloton last year announced an investment agreement with Lockheed Martin to accelerate Peloton’s development and deployment of truck-platooning technology for the U.S. and international trucking industries.

“We are excited to be working with Lockheed Martin, a recognized leader in automated vehicles and safety-critical systems,” said Peloton CEO Josh Switkes. “Lockheed Martin understands and supports our mission of increasing safety and fuel savings across the industry.”

The Peloton Truck Platooning System is a vehicle automation technology that has the potential to save lives and save fuel in today’s trucking operations. The system electronically couples pairs of trucks through a combination of vehicle-to-vehicle communications, radar-based active braking systems and proprietary vehicle-control algorithms. The system improves safety and allows trucks to travel at closer distances, which improves aerodynamics and reduces fuel use.