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Convoy of Connectivity: U.S. Army Tests Autonomous Trucks in Michigan

The day of the driverless car is gaining ground.  Fast. 


What was once a science fiction fantasy is exploding into a legitimate industry.  Connected vehicles have caught the attention of such companies as Tesla, Uber and even Google.  Now, add the U.S. military to that list.  In Michigan, an Army research and development lab is experimenting with cargo hauling trucks to learn how to run automated supply convoys.  The goal is to save time, fuel and human lives.  


The Blue Water Bridge soars more than 200 feet above the St. Clair River near its mouth at the southern tip of Lake Huron.  Every day, thousands of people traverse this span between the United States and Canada.  The journey takes a sharp eye and a strong hand.


Crossing a bridge can be a little unsettling, even for an experienced driver.  But what if you could make the trip with your foot off the gas and your hands off the wheel? 


It’s possible.  And today, the U.S. Army has come to Port Huron to prove it.


Four tractor-trailers idle along the riverbank.  One of them is a connected vehicle, with automatic steering, gas and brakes.  The convoy is preparing for a quick test run over the Blue Water Bridge.


Michigan Department of Transportation director Kirk Steudle will be one of the passengers on the ride.


“This is the first time that this is being done on public roads in the United States, and I suspect anywhere in North America,” says Steudle.  “So, I want to thank you all for being here, thanks for witnessing history.”


This demo is a collaboration between the state and TARDEC, the Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center based in Warren, Michigan. TARDEC boasts a pedigree that dates back to World War II. 


The underlying goal that’s driving the military’s driverless vehicle program is safety.  On the battlefield, a supply convoy is a prime target for attack.  The Army believes autonomous technology could put fewer soldiers in those trucks, riding instead in better armored vehicles.


“It’s about saving lives, first and foremost; it’s about being more efficient and being able to do more with the number of soldiers and the number of trucks that we have,” says TARDEC director Paul Rogers.  “And it’s always about giving the soldiers what they need to succeed and come home.”


The formation pulls out, heading for the bridge on-ramp.  There’s two commercial and two military trucks.  The last ne in line is the autonomous vehicle.


Reporters were not allowed on the trip over the bridge.  Instead, we stayed behind to talk with TARDEC program manager Bernard Theisen about the hardware inside the truck.


“What we’ve done in this vehicle is, we’ve actually put an electronic power steering column on,” Theisen explains.  “For the autonomy package, we’ve then put on additional sensors; some LIDAR and some cameras.”


LIDAR stands for Light Detection and Ranging, a laser-based sensor used to measure distance.  It’s the same principle bats use with sonar.  But not even the Batmobile had this little device.


After about an hour, the convoy returns.


TARDEC director Paul Rogers emerges from the last truck, pleased but low-key.


“No surprises, which is what we expected and what we needed out of this,” he says.  “So, it was very good.” 


But Michigan Department of Transportation chief Kirk Steudle is clearly impressed.


“It was really interesting,” Steudle recounts.  “We got to the customs plaza on the U.S. side and it’s in automated mode the whole time; the steering wheel is doing these quick little adjustments.  But as the truck would veer across, you’d see the back tires cross a paint line.  And then, you’d realize that your tires went exactly in the same spot.  So, where that front truck went is where we went.  It was amazing.”


The Army will have a lot more opportunity to amaze.  TARDEC is on schedule to roll out 150 more autonomous vehicles over the next two years.  Each will operate in groups of eight: one manned truck leading seven connected vehicles. 


Director Paul Rogers believes the technology has the power to transform the Army, and perhaps one day, society.  His team is already envisioning a new generation of autonomous cars whose sensors will be as standard as seatbelts.


Kevin Lavery is a general assignment reporter and occasional local host for Morning Edition and All Things considered.
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