Pentagon may be first with self-driving vehicles

The United States military is eager to pursue autonomous vehicle technology to reduce casualties

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

With more than half the casualties in combat zones attributed to military personnel delivering food, fuel and other logistics, the stakes are high for the military to develop artificial intelligence (AI) systems that remove people from the equation.

Enter the self-drive vehicle.

"We're going to have self-driving vehicles in theatre for the army before we'll have self-driving cars on the streets," Mr Michael Griffin, undersecretary of defence for research and engineering, told Congress this month at a hearing on Capitol Hill.

"But the core technologies will be the same."

Technology and auto companies including Alphabet's Waymo unit and General Motors are racing to develop autonomous vehicles to deploy in ride-hailing fleets. Alphabet is the parent company of Google.

Uber Technologies has introduced experimental self-driving trucks to the United States highways in some locations.

But most companies have encountered significant hurdles, highlighted by the death of a pedestrian who was struck by an autonomous Uber test sport utility vehicle in March this year.

Beyond the technical challenges, civilian self-driving developers must navigate a still-evolving legal and regulatory environment.

The military's autonomous vehicles will not roam regulation-free just because they may be headed towards battlefields, according to Ms Karlyn Stanley, a researcher and lawyer at the Rand Corporation.

"The regulatory structure here in the US and the countries where the US may be sending troops are very different," she 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."

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.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which Mr 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 on what has been done commercially as opposed to try to reinvent and do it themselves," said Ms Stanley.

With an annual budget of almost US$700 billion (S$933 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 US Army Maneuver Center of Excellence in Georgia, said in December last year 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.

Offshore, Lockheed Martin and Boeing - the largest and second-largest US contractors - are competing to develop technology for the next generation of large and extra-large US Navy unmanned underwater vehicles to incorporate artificial intelligence

But some are concerned about the implications of using technology to "increase lethality" - in the words of Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis. Mr Mattis visited Google headquarters last year to discuss with executives the best ways to use AI, cloud computing and cybersecurity for the Pentagon.

Last month, thousands of Google employees, including senior engineers, demanded an end to deals letting the military use the company's AI technology.

One concern - the potential development of autonomous weapons that make their own life-and-death targeting decisions.

In 2016, Mr Ash Carter, who was defence secretary under then US President Barack Obama, told a Silicon Valley audience that there will always be "a human being involved in decision-making" for the US.

Mr Charles Dunlap, a retired Air Force major general who is 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 AI products for the military do not put people in danger.

"Self-driving vehicles for battlefield logistics resupply are obviously more benign than autonomous weaponry," Mr Dunlap said.

"But it would still be legally and ethically necessary to demonstrate that they can be used without excessive risk to civilians, who may be caught up in the fighting."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 05, 2018, with the headline 'Pentagon may be first with self-driving vehicles'. Print Edition | Subscribe