Pentagon Joins Tech Startups in Race for Autonomous Vehicles

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky

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]

Matt Posky
Matt Posky

A staunch consumer advocate tracking industry trends and regulation. Before joining TTAC, Matt spent a decade working for marketing and research firms based in NYC. Clients included several of the world’s largest automakers, global tire brands, and aftermarket part suppliers. Dissatisfied with the corporate world and resentful of having to wear suits everyday, he pivoted to writing about cars. Since then, that man has become an ardent supporter of the right-to-repair movement, been interviewed on the auto industry by national radio broadcasts, driven more rental cars than anyone ever should, participated in amateur rallying events, and received the requisite minimum training as sanctioned by the SCCA. Handy with a wrench, Matt grew up surrounded by Detroit auto workers and managed to get a pizza delivery job before he was legally eligible. He later found himself driving box trucks through Manhattan, guaranteeing future sympathy for actual truckers. He continues to conduct research pertaining to the automotive sector as an independent contractor and has since moved back to his native Michigan, closer to where the cars are born. A contrarian, Matt claims to prefer understeer — stating that front and all-wheel drive vehicles cater best to his driving style.

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  • ScarecrowRepair ScarecrowRepair on May 01, 2018

    I do not understand this theory that unmanned supply vehicles will be the cat's meow. They still have to be defended from attack. If my country were overrun by foreign devils with autonomous supply vehicles, I'd be all over that -- the only way to prevent that is make them fight back, and that's a far harder problem than mere driving over rough open ground. Do you simply blast away at everything that moves and looks vaguely human or human-made)? No, you try to distinguish between friend and foe, and that means humans again.

    • See 1 previous
    • ScarecrowRepair ScarecrowRepair on May 01, 2018

      @jmo2 And then the supplies don't get through, which was the whole point. Further, they won't cost $10K, not with all that automatic control, and the supplies cost money too. And the attackers don't have to get within bomb range -- they can lob a few RPGs at it with ease because they know there is no one shooting back.

  • Kendahl Kendahl on May 01, 2018

    Figuring out how to get across rough terrain is orders of magnitude more difficult than recognizing marks on an urban road and we have examples where autonomous vehicles have failed to do the latter correctly. I can foresee remotely operated, unmanned, transport vehicles, comparable to drone aircraft, long before level five autonomous ones.

  • Bd2 Tesla is the most important company in the world, responsible for mass enlightenment and empowerment of the educated affluent masses. This lawsuit will only impede the progress of the human race.
  • Aja8888 Good! Hope the owners' win the case, but it will probably be a long time before Tesla releases repair particulars to 3rd party shops. There is a Tesla service center near me I see every day that is absolutely loaded with service-waiting vehicles (parked for weeks) and I'm sure those owners are not thrilled.
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  • Luke42 With Elon Musk just randomly firing the Supercharger team, Tesla has demonstrated that it isn’t a reliable business partner over the long-term.Being able to get 3rd-party repairs just got a lot more important.I’ve also been upping my Tesla-DIY game.That said, I just put 5000 miles on my Model Y in a month (family-obligations) using the Supercharger Network, and my EV is an incredibly capable vehicle when viewed through an engineering lens. As a car guy, driving my EV through the Appalachian mountains where I learned to drive was truly an experience of holding a tiger by the tail and guiding it where I want to go. But, when looking at my Tesla with Elon in charge of sales & service, I do have some serious concerns about the long-term stability of Tesla as a business.My current plan is to trade my Model Y and my GMC Sierra in on a Silverado EV or GMC Sierra EV once the price/availability/finance picture looks favorable. Elon’s unhinged behavior and the Toyota/Honda’s refusal to innovate are making GM look like a good long-term bet to me.I’ll put up with all of this in order to continue driving an EV, though. Even the best gasoline and diesel vehicles are slow buzzy buckets of bolts that smell bad, compared to my EV — so I’m not going back to a 20th century vehicle.
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