Pentagon Joins Tech Startups in Race for Autonomous Vehicles
It’s been a rough road for autonomous vehicles. Despite development progressing significantly over the last decade, tech companies and automakers have been confronted with a myriad of issues. There have been intellectual property lawsuits, public safety concerns, and a recent backlash from government officials who are starting to wonder if the entire concept has been oversold.
However, the government still wants self-driving cars, especially the Pentagon. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has been researching autonomous cars since the technology was in its infancy and, with so many firms trying to bring the technology to market, the military sees no reason it shouldn’t be the first.
It’s not like it doesn’t have the money.
Michael Griffin, the undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, told a Senate Armed Services subcommittee that technological innovations would be the key to the United States maintaining its military edge — especially with countries like China and Russia advancing so rapidly.
“In a world where pretty much everyone today has equal access to technology, innovation is important, and it will always be important. But speed becomes the differentiating factor. How quickly we can translate technology into fielded capability is where we can achieve and maintain our technological edge,” he said in April. “It is not about speed of discovery, it is about speed of delivery to the field.”
Griffin later elaborated on which technologies he thought the U.S. should focus on. Self-driving vehicles were among them. “We’re going to have self-driving vehicles in theater for the Army before we’ll have self-driving cars on the streets,” he said. “But the core technologies will be the same.”
According to Bloomberg, over half of all casualties in combat zones stem from military personnel delivering supplies. Griffin believes pursuing autonomous tech aggressively could save the lives of troopers and offer the United States a serious advantage on the battlefield. As a result, the Pentagon wants to accelerate development on the technology.
“You’re in a very vulnerable position when you’re doing that kind of activity,” he continued. “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?”
The Pentagon intends to tap existing tech companies to learn from them. While it’s made strides on its own, it sees the merits in collaborating with civilians currently working on autonomous systems. “The military is very eager to learn and build upon what’s been done commercially as opposed to try to reinvent and do it themselves,” said Karlyn Stanley, a researcher and lawyer at the RAND Corporation.
Likewise, Griffin said the Pentagon “absolutely must leverage” the technology of private companies if it’s going to develop its own self-driving cars.
Still, some remain concerned that the development of autonomous military vehicles will create moral gray areas. Will computer-controlled systems be utilized on weaponry? Is it ethical to give a machine the ability to kill? What kind of safety measures would be in place to ensure these units can’t be hacked and taken over by our enemies?
For now, the military is just talking about unarmed autonomous supply and reconnoissance vehicles. But you see where this could head once the ball gets rolling. The Navy has already begun contracting for an unmanned submarine and General Motors established a new defense unit in 2017 in the hopes of growing its business with the military.
Last October, GM Defense LLC said it was already in discussions with Army Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center about its Silent Utility Rover Universal Superstructure (SURUS) platform. The unit is an autonomous carriage, running on hydrogen, that can be outfitted for all manner of activities. Still in development, SURUS is believed to provide logistical advantages since it could run at night without headlamps in relative silence.
Not all companies are quite so keen to work with the Pentagon. Thousands of Google employees recently organized to demand the company end deals that gave the military access to its artificial intelligence technology. Their condemnation was in response to a statement in which Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis noted advanced technologies would provide the United States’ armed forces with “increased lethality.”
[Image: General Motors]
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