The United States military believes it will have self-driving vehicles before civilians partake in the mobility revolution. The idea of a self-driving vehicle for military purposes brings incredible benefits and could keep humans out of harm's way.
According to Michael Griffin, the Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, 52 percent of casualties in combat zones can be traced back to military personnel delivering food or fuel, or conducting other logistical activities. Griffin's remarks were included in a Bloomberg report on Sunday. Without the humans, combat zones become much safer places for essential supply deliveries. Griffin made his remarks at a hearing on Capital Hill last month, where he also said that military personnel performing such duties are "vulnerable."
Griffin seemed certain the Pentagon will have self-driving cars before the technology becomes part of everyday life. Self-driving vehicles also bring fewer challenges to the table in combat zones. They don't necessarily need to worry about pedestrians or traffic signs in combat. The Under Secretary added that a simple algorithm could perform deliveries.
Self-driving cars at home will also need to adhere to scores of regulatory requirements, which, again, makes self-driving military vehicles more likely to come first. However, the Pentagon may need to work rather quickly. Technology companies such as Waymo and automakers like General Motors have already begun testing their self-driving cars on city streets. GM wants to commercialize its self-driving cars in 2019.
Griffin added that the Pentagon should absolutely leverage what private companies have accomplished thus far, though he did not name any specific company or possible partnership. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is overseen by Griffin and it has been funding research into the technology since 2004 with the first DARPA Grand Challenge. The Pentagon has a $700 billion budget to tap into, some of which can potentially be used to bring self-driving vehicles to life.
The Pentagon is likely looking beyond delivery vehicles. Self-driving tanks and bomb-disarmament vehicles are possible as well, according to Bloomberg, though they may be remote-controlled. Other roles for self-driving military vehicles could include reconnaissance, evacuation of wounded, and explosive ordinance disposal.
The call for unmanned vehicles extends beyond the terra firma. The Navy is looking at pilotless submarines to handle under-water navigation hazards and to prospect for oil, gas, and mineral, according to the Bloomberg report.
All of this calls into question the ethics of unmanned vehicles for military purposes. Keeping troops out of harm's way is one thing, but critics say autonomous technology could be applied to weapons that could make life-and-death decisions. Drones have been used for targeted strikes for years. However, Bloomberg reported that Ash Carter, who was Secretary of Defense under President Barack Obama, told a concerned Silicon Valley audience in 2016 that the U.S. will always have a human being involved in the decision in the matter of lethal force. Whether that policy is adhered to moving forward remains to be seen.
—Kirk Bell contributed to this report