The U.S. Army's first autonomous vehicles could be on the road in about 18 months.
But unlike Tesla's Autopilot or Cadillac's upcoming Super Cruise, the Army's self-driving system won't be used on public roads.
The vehicles will be deployed in extremely controlled areas, at low speeds and for special missions: to transport wounded soldiers to the hospital for rehab treatment.
A three-phase pilot program run by the U.S. Army Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center (TARDEC) is underway at Fort Bragg, N.C., one of several installations scheduled to use driverless vehicles.
Specially equipped Cushman Shuttles -- basically long-wheelbase golf carts -- will pick up combat-wounded soldiers at their barracks and transport them about half a mile to Womack Army Medical Center, explained Edward Straub, program manager for the Army's Applied Robotics for Installations and Base Operations.
An automated drive of such a short distance in a low-speed vehicle might not sound like much of a technical accomplishment compared with what automakers and suppliers, such as Delphi, Continental, ZF and Bosch, are working on. But the Army vehicles will be driving on roads and pathways that do not have traffic signs and lane markings like regular roads, Straub said.
The Army is developing automated vehicles for two main reasons: First, self-driving vehicles can reduce the amount of money the Army spends on its fixed operations. And second, TARDEC engineers believe the technology and lessons from limited on-base driverless vehicles eventually can be used as the building blocks for automated battlefield vehicles.
The Fort Bragg project, Straub said, came about when the Army noticed many combat-wounded soldiers were missing their doctor's appointments, partially because of the heavy traffic and lack of parking close to the hospital.
"That actually creates a huge cost to the hospital, [which is] a traumatic brain injury center of excellence," said Straub. "Some of these appointments can cost $5,000. So, if the soldier is not showing up, that's a huge cost. We surmised that by providing soldiers a reliable, personalized transportation option, we could reduce that number of missed appointments."
Soldiers, he added, can schedule rides on the Cushman Shuttles that are driven on roadways, parking lots and dual-use sidewalks; transportation is door-to-door. There is a driver controlling the vehicles now, but the shuttles are equipped with all the sensors and other equipment needed to be driverless. TARDEC is using these vehicles and each trip to create the hardware and software that will lead to autonomous driving.
In the second phase of the project, tentatively scheduled to begin this fall, the Cushman Shuttles will drive themselves, but with an operator in the driver's seat ready to take control in an emergency.
By late 2017 or early 2018, the vehicles are expected to be driverless, Straub said.
"As the Army, we have access to all these bases where we can control the environment and what impact the decisions that driverless cars are going to make and how well they are going to perform," he said. "Our ultimate objective is to get the best technology into the hands of the war fighter in the battlefield."