The U.S. military plans to deploy dozens of autonomous trucks next year, well ahead of schedule. She believes that high-tech vehicles will confer a definite advantage in a land war context, where driverless trucks could allow soldiers to be free to perform other tasks. This could include the safety of the robotic trucks themselves. “If you look at the war in Iraq, one of the most dangerous tasks has been to lead a convoy between Kuwait City and Baghdad. We have lost many, many soldiers, too many soldiers, as a result of IED attacks (roadside bombs) or other convoy attacks. I could have reduced this vulnerability, this sacrifice (with) unmanned convoys or convoys held by (only) two or three soldiers,” said Mark Esper, Army Secretary.
“It takes three soldiers to support and resupply each soldier in a combat role,” Paul Rogers, director of the Army Armoured Engineering Research and Development Center (Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center – TARDEC), told Paul Rogers. “All we can do to help reduce this is to increase efficiency.
The army decided that its work with autonomous trucks was advanced enough for soldiers to test them under mission conditions. The initial plan called for the commissioning of 300 autonomous trucks in 2025. To move the program forward, the Army has reduced its initial list of 45 requirements for autonomous vehicles to 15 essential ones.
“We have to deal with unmanned logistics,” said Robert Sadowski, the army’s robotic leader.
The Army has begun to use advanced safety system technologies, including emergency automatic braking, adaptive cruise control and track centering. TARDEC has worked with industry and research partners, including Carnegie Mellon University, to develop stand-alone truck software from many manufacturers. He tested a form of truck platoon called “Leader-Follower”, which spaces vehicles 50 to 100 metres apart to protect cargoes from road hazards, such as dust storms and combat hazards such as roadside bombs.
The armed forces continue to develop autonomous vehicles and in parallel the civilian trucking industry is adopting similar technology. Commercial trucking companies, for example, test a different type of platoon, where trucks of three or more digitally attached follow each other closely, usually at a distance of 40 feet. Digital communications and automatic emergency braking reduce wind resistance and improve fuel consumption.
The army will save fuel, Sadowski said, but its objective is to create wartime advantages, such as being able to operate autonomously in peat bogs and deserts.
The first 60 trucks will go to Fort Polk, Louisiana, and Fort Sill, Oklahoma, because they use the same loading system used at these bases. The Army accumulated 50,000 miles of Leader-Follower self-contained practice in an earlier version of the trucks last year. These trucks each had a human driver in case something went wrong. The army could chain up to seven trucks. However, she would like soldiers to provide feedback on behaviour in the field so that software problems can be fixed before more trucks are sent.
“The current system meets “about 95%” of the requirements set by the army,” Sadowski said. “In the real world, your software is never correct the first time. Software under development would allow trucks to reverse in the event of a threat similar to that of an explosive on the road.
Ensuring that the system is secure for soldiers and resistant to hacking is an ongoing challenge. “We are trying to integrate our cybersecurity as we develop,” said Sadowski. “No platform is 100% secure if you have physical access to it.