The Military drives automated vehicles, and what new Teslas can do now

Seven unmanned military trucks photographed during a test of the Army’s autonomous mobility system. (Photo Credit: U.S. Army)

Elon Musk made the headlines this week announcing that new Tesla vehicles will have full self-driving capability, but there’s a more powerful force behind the development of autonomous-vehicle technology, a RAND Corp. expert said Tuesday.

The U.S. Army and other world militaries are moving to fully autonomous vehicles “not for a return on investment, but for force protection,” said Karlyn Stanley, co-author of a new RAND report on autonomous vehicle technology, “protecting the soldiers who are in the convoys transferring fuel and water and other important supplies.”

The military has a compelling case for moving convoys of vehicles through dangerous areas without putting soldiers at risk, motivating the military to perfect the same technologies that will eventually move passenger vehicles down dangerous highways at greatly reduced risk to passengers.

 “The army is very interested in using automated and autonomous vehicles to assist with that challenge,” said Stanley, an innovation-policy expert, at the Shared Mobility Summit in Chicago. “And if we have the military moving into this area, I think that will speed up deployment elsewhere.”

It will speed deployment particularly in commercial vehicle platooning—in which fleets of driverless freight trucks could band together much as train cars do now—bumper to bumper but at full speed and without human drivers, boosting efficiency and radically reducing cost. (Drivers represent up to a third of transport costs, according to an EU study of Europe’s transportation market.)As the photo above testifies, the U.S. Army has already achieved this form of platooning, and that’s just the beginning of its plans.

“My vision is for Army vehicles to have scalable autonomous capabilities,” said Matt Donohue, a ground maneuver technology portfolio director for U.S. Army, speaking to Army Technology Magazine. “For Army tactical vehicles, this means scalable autonomy from leader-follower to fully autonomous capable, including the ability to be loaded and unloaded by autonomous material handling equipment.”

Mining and farming companies likewise have compelling economic reasons to switch to driverless vehicles, and will benefit from development of vehicles and equipment that perform parallel tasks for the military, Stanley said.

Passenger vehicles are likely to follow. Tesla announced on its website Thursday that a December software upgrade will provide “Enhanced Autopilot” to vehicles already on the road:

“Your Tesla will match speed to traffic conditions, keep within a lane, automatically change lanes without requiring driver input, transition from one freeway to another, exit the freeway when your destination is near, self-park when near a parking spot and be summoned to and from your garage,” the carmaker announced on its website. New cars will go one step further:

Build upon Enhanced Autopilot and order Full Self-Driving Capability on your Tesla. This doubles the number of active cameras from four to eight, enabling full self-driving in almost all circumstances, at what we believe will be a probability of safety at least twice as good as the average human driver. The system is designed to be able to conduct short and long distance trips with no action required by the person in the driver’s seat. For Superchargers that have automatic charge connection enabled, you will not even need to plug in your vehicle.

All you will need to do is get in and tell your car where to go. If you don’t say anything, the car will look at your calendar and take you there as the assumed destination or just home if nothing is on the calendar. Your Tesla will figure out the optimal route, navigate urban streets (even without lane markings), manage complex intersections with traffic lights, stop signs and roundabouts, and handle densely packed freeways with cars moving at high speed. When you arrive at your destination, simply step out at the entrance and your car will enter park seek mode, automatically search for a spot and park itself. A tap on your phone summons it back to you.

Tesla warns that cars will not actually be able to drive themselves until regulators give their approval: “It is not possible to know exactly when each element of the functionality described above will be available, as this is highly dependent on local regulatory approval.”

Observers warn that such approval will not come until the technology has been perfected and extensively road tested, which is where the military comes in. There’s precedent for military technology crossing over to the civilian automotive sector.

In RAND’s report, “Autonomous Vehicle Technology, A Guide for Policymakers,” Stanley and her co-authors cite an example: “Prior to 2000, GPS used a system called ‘Selective Availability’ that provided civilian applications with a degraded signal with lower accuracy than the military-grade signal. In May 2000, an executive order by President Bill Clinton (Exec. Order No. 12866) ended Selective Availability and provided civilian users the same quality signal as military users.

According to a Microsoft executive, such moves are not uncommon.

“You frequently see military technology become commercialized,” said Adam Hecktman, director of technology and innovation for Microsoft in Chicago, and the moderator of Stanley’s panel at the Shared Mobility Summit. “They’re taking some existing some existing commercialized (technology) and accelerating it into the market, and of course there are the manufacturing and industrial spaces doing virtually the same thing.”

By Jeff McMahon, based in Chicago. Follow Jeff McMahon on Facebook, Google Plus, Twitter, or email him here.