The Leader In The Self-Driving Vehicle Race Isn't Uber Or Tesla: It's The Pentagon

With all of the hype about autonomous driving focused on companies like Uber and Tesla, one big name has been left off the list of consideration in the public spotlight: the United States Government. And, it turns out with companies like Uber seeing self-driving fatalities causing major pushback in implementation of public testing, the government is the one leading the self-driving race. 

Monday morning Bloomberg reported that the Pentagon could be the first to win the race to implement useful autonomous driving. Bloomberg reported:

Forget Uber, Waymo and Tesla: the next big name in self-driving vehicles could be the Pentagon.

“We’re going to have self-driving vehicles in theater for the Army before we’ll have self-driving cars on the streets,” Michael Griffin, the undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, told lawmakers at a hearing on Capitol Hill this month. “But the core technologies will be the same.”

The implementation of autonomous driving on the battlefield is an easier landscape to work with than roadways, as there are no traffic lights or roadsigns to worry about if you're just trying to just get supplies from point A to point B.

This makes autonomous vehicles a potentially lifesaving and wildly good idea for war zones - the delivering of things like medical supplies and food on the battlefield are a perfect fit:

The stakes for the military are high. According to Griffin, 52 percent of casualties in combat zones can been attributed to military personnel delivering food, fuel and other logistics. Removing people from that equation with systems run on artificial intelligence could reduce injuries and deaths significantly, he added.

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

On top of that, the federal government has a much larger budget than any one company working on self-driving. The Pentagon's budget comes in around $700 billion:

With an annual budget of almost $700 billion, the Pentagon can afford to aggressively pursue autonomous vehicle technology well beyond fuel and food delivery trucks. The Army, for instance, is pushing forward with efforts to develop unmanned tanks and smarter vehicles for bomb disarmament, though many of those technologies will be remote-controlled, not autonomous.

Major Alan L. Stephens, an officer at the Mounted Requirements Division of the U.S. Army Maneuver Center of Excellence in Georgia, said in December that the Army wants to start testing light, fast remote-controlled tanks with the same firepower as the current 70-plus-ton manned M1 Abrams tank within the next five years.

BAE Systems Plc, the maker of the Army’s manned Armored Multi-Purpose Vehicle, also makes unmanned vehicles known as the Ironclad and the Armed Robotic Combat Vehicle. The Ironclad, which looks like a miniature tank missing a gun turret, is expected to have roles in reconnaissance, evacuations of injured personnel and explosive ordnance disposal, according to the London-based company’s website.

However, their enormous budget doesn't mean that they are not going to be working with companies already developing this technology. Other companies may wind up with a chunk of the government's $700 billion plus budget to help contribute to the project's development:

“The regulatory structure here in the U.S. and the countries where the U.S. may be sending troops are very different,” Stanley said. “How autonomous vehicles are going to be regulated -- in terms of safety, cybersecurity, privacy and liability -- those are going to be critical issues” the Pentagon will have to address as well, she added.

The Pentagon has a long history of support that helped to develop or refine key technologies that become widespread later, including space flight and the internet.

Griffin said the Pentagon “absolutely must leverage” what private companies are doing to develop self-driving cars, though he didn’t mention any by name and his office declined to comment when asked for more details about the Pentagon’s plans.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which Griffin oversees, has been funding research into self-driving cars for years and sponsored its first competition for the vehicles in 2004.

“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 RAND’s Stanley.

The Navy is also already looking into unmanned underwater vessels, with companies like Lockheed and Boeing competing for these contracts:

Offshore, the Navy is seeking help developing technology for the next generation of large and extra-large unmanned underwater vehicles to incorporate artificial intelligence so they can handle navigation hazards such as deep-draft commercial ship traffic, fishing activities, marine mammals and prospecting for oil, gas or minerals. Lockheed Martin Corp. and Boeing Co., the largest and second-largest U.S. contractors, are competing on the program, with a critical design review scheduled for December.

Not all companies already working on AI and self-driving seem excited about being a part of the government's plan, however. It was reported that employees at Google have already protested allowing the government to use the company's AI technology:

Thousands of employees at Alphabet’s Google recently demanded an end to deals letting the military use the company’s artificial intelligence technology. Mattis visited Google headquarters in Mountain View, California, last year to discuss with executives the best ways to use AI, cloud computing and cybersecurity for the Pentagon.

Among critics’ concerns is the potential development of autonomous weapons that make their own life-and-death targeting decisions. Ash Carter, who was defense secretary under President Barack Obama, told a Silicon Valley audience in 2016 that “in the matter of the use of lethal force, there will always be -- at least speaking for the United States -- a human being involved in decision making.”

Charles Dunlap, a retired Air Force major general who’s now a law professor at Duke University, said companies will come under “enormous pressure” as they sort out these issues and try to make sure their artificial intelligence products for the military don’t put people in danger.

We reported back in late March that Nvidia had suspended its self-driving tests, shortly after Uber did the same following a fatal accident. This came just weeks after one of Ford's self-driving prototypes also sent two people to the hospital in an accident. While a certain precursor seems to be in place for the Pentagon to roll out autonomous driving onto the battlefield, it's ultimately still a project at the hands of the government and that means we won’t be surprised if it takes longer to implement than expected, costs more than estimated or never sees the light of day to begin with.


FireBrander WTFRLY Thu, 05/03/2018 - 15:10 Permalink

I can just see the "enemy" running up and jumping in it for a ride; now what ya gonna do?

They took a fancy golf cart, gave it a desert camo paint job, made it "self driving"...and what's the price tag? $10,000,000 each?

I wonder if this company also makes walkers for children?

Story in the news a while back, some insurance company denying this little kid a custom made walker. The thing looked EXACTLY like the one you can buy online for ~$100 except it was sized for a little kid...price tag...$3800! First time I ever sided with a health insurance company.

In reply to by WTFRLY

are we there yet FireBrander Thu, 05/03/2018 - 15:14 Permalink

What if they had a war and no one showed up except the robots and self driving tanks. That would be civilized. Also, the TV rights could partially offset the cost of the war. If it was profitable enough the waring parties may even have another war just for fun since no one actually dies.

In reply to by FireBrander

inhibi FireBrander Thu, 05/03/2018 - 15:45 Permalink

Better: take a paintball gun and shoot the stupid LIDAR thats sitting PROMINENTLY on top. Just went from self-driving to self-crashing.

These LIDAR systems are a joke. Have they tested any of these in the sand pit which is Iraq? That shit would be caked from dust in the 1st mile. 

In reply to by FireBrander

HominyTwin Thu, 05/03/2018 - 14:42 Permalink

Just hire locals to do the driving in whatever land we invade/occupy. They will steal some of the supplies, and deliver the rest. Just like, well, Afghanistan. Because the drivers will be part of the guerilla force we are fighting, they will not get shot, unlike the unmanned delivery vehicles.


But who am I to cock-block defense contractors?

ipso_facto Thu, 05/03/2018 - 14:44 Permalink

'The implementation of autonomous driving on the battlefield is an easier landscape to work with than roadways, as there are no traffic lights or roadsigns to worry about if you're just trying to just get supplies from point A to point B.'

Also if an unintended person gets mowed down on a battlefield you'd just get a big TS from the military when you asked about it.

pitz Thu, 05/03/2018 - 14:45 Permalink

I've been saying this all along, the real expertise in the sort of sensors and embedded systems required are not the people at the big SV social-media focused tech companies (who have zero experience/background with that stuff), but are rather in the defense and aerospace communities, particularly the defense contractors.  

In fact the SV efforts are rather a PR joke compared to what exists at the defense contractors.  

land_of_the_few pitz Thu, 05/03/2018 - 16:28 Permalink

Already been tested a year ago on real roads by Nissan in London. You know, actual carmakers :D

Nissan have a research center in SV for this kind of thing, which is where a lot of it was developed. Note, past tense. Already done, at normal driving speeds on real roads with real traffic, and not some ridiculous golf cart.…


In reply to by pitz

VWAndy Thu, 05/03/2018 - 14:53 Permalink

 Whats to keep a person with a self driving car from having it simply drive itself around the block instead of paying for parking? 

taketheredpill Thu, 05/03/2018 - 15:01 Permalink

Charles Dunlap, a retired Air Force major general who’s now a law professor at Duke University, said companies will come under “enormous pressure” as they sort out these issues and try to make sure their artificial intelligence products for the military don’t put people in danger.


I built a mine that detects movement within 50 feet and pops 4 feet into the air before spraying 1000's of jagged metal shards in all directions.  The military has assured me that it won't put people in danger.

Friedrich not Salma Thu, 05/03/2018 - 15:03 Permalink

I've observed that [non-ZH] Americans only become concerned about foreign entanglements when they see dead soldiers' bodies coming home. "Out of sight, out of mind." These new fighting-at-a-distance weapons will unleash America's war machine and the only way it'll stop is when soldiers and citizens are dying on our own ground.

RagaMuffin Thu, 05/03/2018 - 15:04 Permalink

Genius at the edge of extinction. Ever try to sneak up on scared 18 years olds driving re-supply? "Sneak" up on the GuberUber ver1, attach booby traps and let them go on their merry way............. Use trips, cells or duct tape

abgary1 Thu, 05/03/2018 - 15:09 Permalink

Is it any surprise that the organization with the bottomless R&D budget is winning the race?


Automate the public sector, improve efficiency, slash government spending and taxes.

Ban automation of the private sector, put people back to work and let them keep their money.

Karl Marxist Thu, 05/03/2018 - 15:14 Permalink

Cone on! Who doesn't know Tesla is a branch of the Pentagon or, rather, Israel? Operation Talpiot. Essential reading by every freedom loving man and woman on Earth.

artichoke Thu, 05/03/2018 - 15:19 Permalink

No, the unmentioned one is the Israeli military.  This is not a secret.  Watch Netanyahu's most recent annual address to the UN General Assembly (probably 2017).  He boasts about his country's autonomous vehicle technology (commercialized thru Mobileye) going into consumer products (early Teslas).  Mobileye since split from Tesla (hence, Tesla's switching to "v2" autopilot which has never really worked as well as the "v1" which was the Mobileye product) and I think Mobileye is now said to be working with Intel.

Cautiously Pes… Thu, 05/03/2018 - 15:21 Permalink

I was talking to a buddy of mine the other day.....

He said, ‘I was so depressed last night thinking about the economy, wars, jobs, my savings, social security, retirement funds, etc., I called a suicide hotline and was routed to a call centre in Islamabad. When I told them I was suicidal, they got all excited and asked if I could drive a truck.’



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