Beginning this June, the U.S. Army will conduct road tests of technology that promises to enable self-driving heavy truck convoys—though this summer's experiments will still put drivers behind the wheel.
that the Army will send at least four experimental vehicles out for testing along Interstate 69 in Michigan. The trucks will be equipped with advanced vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communications devices, meant to examine how future autonomous big-rigs in a convoy could communicate with one another, with other traffic, and with high-tech infrastructure equipment to sense traffic patterns, speed limits, road construction, and more.
Army spokesman Douglas Halleaux that interstate testing of fully driverless, robotically controlled vehicles isn't far off. "It won't be in June, but it won't be long," he said.
The armed forces have a particular interest in developing autonomous heavy-duty trucks. "Army line-haul convoys currently require at least two personnel in each vehicle, not including escort or protection vehicles," Paul Rogers, director of the Army's Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center in Warren, MI, . Removing soldiers from convoy duties could reduce the potential for battlefield casualties as well as those incurred in accidents outside of battle zones.
And autonomous convoy technology could have great benefits for the civilian trucking industry. Experts envision a future where a series of semi-autonomous smaller cargo trucks follows a lead truck (piloted either by a human or autonomously), able to handle bridge weight limits, tight turns, or narrow streets more nimbly than a single large truck. This could also alleviate the growing shortage of truck drivers, with as many as 48,000 unfilled openings for drivers as of the end of 2015.
The Army has been testing self-driving tech on military bases for several years: The photo above shows a convoy of driverless Army trucks navigating the Department of Energy's Savannah River Site in South Carolina in May of 2014. But with its first public-road tests set for this coming summer, the Army is ready to make its next advance on the self-driving future.