Pentagon: Military will have self-driving vehicles before public

Pentagon: Military will have self-driving vehicles before public

The US Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, Michael Griffin, has told Capitol Hill lawmakers that the Pentagon will reap the benefits of self-driving vehicles before the public does.

And, according to Griffin, that time can’t come soon enough.

While many armed forces are experimenting with driverless tanks (such as the RoBattle, pictured above) and pilotless fighter planes, Griffin explained that more than half of casualties in combat zones involve military personnel making critical deliveries of fuel, food, and general supplies. As a result, the adoption of self-driving vehicles could remove those service men and women from unnecessary danger, reduce the number injuries, and ultimately save lives.

“You’re in a very vulnerable position when you’re doing that kind of activity,” said Griffin. “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?”

Less red tape when lives are at stake

Griffin’s point about autonomous military vehicles not needing to “worry about pedestrians and road signs and all of that,” is more illuminating than it first appears.

His statement highlights exactly why the military could well see the widespread adoption of driverless vehicles before the likes of Uber and Waymo roll out their fleets for public use. Put simply, in an inherently dangerous environment such as a warzone, some risks are worth taking to protect soldiers from harm – risks that would be unacceptable on the public highway or in towns and cities in peacetime, for example.

In this limited sense there are unlikely similarities with startup projects such as ZipLine – a drone company delivering medical supplies in rural Africa, which has plans to set up in the US. Concerns that usually hold back autonomous deployments are outweighed by the need to harness the technology today. When lives are at stake in these types of situations, details such as liability or operations beyond visual line of sight can take a backseat.

Health and safety fears and regulations have – for very good reasons – been a hurdle for companies such as Amazon, Uber, Waymo, Toyota, and Baidu, which want to use autonomous vehicles to move people or packages from one place to another for the sake of convenience and lower costs. And March’s two fatalities in software-piloted vehicle tests, involving Tesla and Uber cars, demonstrated that the risks to the public are real at this early development stage of the technology.

But in combat situations, risk assessments look set to come to the conclusion that mounting the occasional curb or incorrectly reading road signs are of relatively little consequence – particularly if the terrain means that there are few such obstacles to navigate in the first place.

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It would be wrong to say that the military faces no issues in the race to adopt autonomous vehicles, however.

Just as driverless cars have to be able to avoid pedestrians and other vehicles, adhere to road laws, and navigate a dynamic regulatory environment, military vehicles have to be secure from cyber attacks and be able to protect sensitive information.

Last year, the US Army grounded its fleet of DJI drones over concerns that the Chinese manufacturer’s devices had cyber vulnerabilities. The fear was that the drones, typically used by military personnel for situational awareness and infrastructure inspection, could be hacked to reveal intelligence.

That situation has been resolved to a degree, following an independent report verifying DJI’s data security practices. But the point remains: although autonomous vehicles have the potential to save lives in the military, any cybersecurity weaknesses could add to casualties, not reduce them.