When it comes to concepts for vehicles that can drive themselves on highways or city streets, the military and automakers have been working on similar paths for several years. The Army has looked into trucks that move autonomously as soldiers keep watch for roadside bombs or ambushes.
Japanese, German and U.S. car manufacturers are investing research and development funding into the same idea, but for everyday life.
Self-driving vehicles is a technology trend that has largely been out of the general public's eye. But there are signs that this is about to change.
Already some of these capabilities are making it into luxury cars. Vehicles that can parallel park themselves are being advertised on TV. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency sponsored the DARPA Grand Challenge in 2007; where driverless cars navigated a closed course on a military base in California. The X Prize Foundation--with great fanfare--offered $10 million for suborbital space travel. It is now gearing up to offer a similar cash award for a driverless vehicle.
Google is investing money in the concept. Toyota, Volkswagen, General Motors and other vehicle manufacturers are doing so as well.
Along with the military, NASA funds the development of vehicles that can autonomously explore the surfaces of planets or moons in the solar system.
Meanwhile, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration--part of the Department of Transportation--is taking a small step toward autonomy by experimenting with cars that warn each other of potential collisions.
"I think over the last couple of years we are starting to converge/' said John Augustine, managing director of intelligent transportation systems at the Department of Transportation. He has an annual R&D budget of about $110 million to spend on such initiatives. He recently traveled from Washington, D.G to the Army's Tank and Automotive Research and Development Center in Michigan, to see how his program and the Defense Department can leverage each other's initiatives.
Defense and Transportation Department personnel, along with NASA and industry representatives, met at a joint Association for Unmanned Systems International-National Defense Industrial Association conference devoted to bringing the military; federal, and commercial "intelligent transportation" worlds together.
Both the Defense and Transportation Departments have a goal of saving lives. For the military, it wants to protect those who are driving supply trucks in hostile domains. For the last four years, it has invested in convoy active safety technology or CAST, which allows hands-free driving.
As for the Transportation Department, it wants to sharply reduce the large numbers of victims who die on U.S. roads each year. About 6 million accidents occur in the United States annually, resulting in about 33,000 fatalities. The vast majority of these accidents are caused by driver error.
"Safety is our number one mission," Augustine said. The death toll does not include serious injuries resulting from the car crashes, he noted.
Jose Gonzalez, director of land warfare and munitions in the office of the secretary of defense, said with the grand challenges, prize competitions and research and development dollars going into autonomous vehicles, the question is now: where is all this heading?
"Cultural acceptance is now our biggest challenge in DoD," he said. Combatant commanders have seen the value of ground robots that assist explosive ordnance disposal teams dismantle roadside bombs, but the U.S. military as a whole has not moved beyond them.
The CAST system allows trucks to follow a leader vehicle and their drivers to keep their hands off wheels and their feet off brakes. It has been under development for a number of years, but has not made it into battle zones. One issue has been the price tag. TARDEC has been trying to bring the price to under $20,000 for each vehicle. …