Cars that can park, brake at a sign of danger and navigate in traffic are on their way to dealers’ showrooms, turning science-fiction fantasies of consumer-owned self-driving vehicles into a new reality.
But as private investors have been pushing ahead to develop the systems needed for these new robotic machines, one crucial innovator has been largely out of the loop: the United States military.
The armed forces have lagged in deploying their own versions of unmanned road vehicles, despite goals to create machines that could replace “boots on the ground” in conflicts. Cuts in spending and technological challenges have left the military with virtually no chance of meeting the goal set by Congress to have a third of the combat fleet consist of unmanned vehicles by 2015, experts said.
The military’s failure to lead the way in self-driving ground vehicles is ironic, given that today’s commercial advances have their roots in research originally sponsored by Darpa, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Pentagon’s advanced technology organization. A decade ago, Darpa offered a series of “grand challenges” to private researchers, which helped push the technology forward.
General Motors and Nissan said last month they would offer self-driving cars before the end of the decade. Early next year BMW and several other carmakers plan to offer limited systems that will drive automatically in freeway traffic at low speeds. Google already has asmall fleet of vehicles with more than a half-million miles of automatic driving in California.
“Now the automation of vehicles is taking off on the civilian side,” said Peter W. Singer, a Brookings Institution researcher and author of “Wired for War,” about the development of robot weapons. Mr. Singer predicts that civilian advances will ultimately trickle down to the military, a radical turnaround.
The military is not completely bereft of high-tech ground vehicles that can assist in warfare. The Legged Squad Support System, developed by Boston Dynamics, is a four-legged robot about the size of a cow. The system is intended to follow a soldier in the field, carrying up to 400 pounds of equipment.
However, the robot illustrates the technological challenges of making vehicles that not only have systems in place to complete tasks, but can operate and survive in unmapped, hostile environments.
Yet there has been progress.
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