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.