Progress in Autonomous Land Vehicles: What Does it Mean?

Just a quick one today.  I’ve got a couple more substantive post brewing that I hope to get out this weekend.  Grading papers has been a bit of an impediment to blogging recently.

There is continuing progress in the development of driverless automobiles.  You will recall that a team from Stanford (GO STANFORD!) won the 2005 DARPA Grand Challenge by building a car that could traverse a 132 mile course through the desert by itself.  (The “technical paper” describing what the Stanford team did is here.)  Then in the 2007 DARPA Urban Challenge a Stanford team came in second behind a team led by Carnegie Mellon University.  (Stanford was first across the finish line, but was set back a bit by penalties.)

For those interested in more, PBS’ Nova did an episode on the Grand Challenge and an exhibit in the Smithonsian’s Museum of American History deals with both Challenges.  The the winning car from 2005 is actually there…right near Julia Child’s kitchen.

But the story continues.  Now Stanford has modified an Audi and intends to send it up Pikes Peak.  The “road” that the car will go up is  partially paved and partially gravel.  It is 12.4 miles long, climbs 4700 feet, has 156 turns, and provides plenty of opportunities to fall off a cliff.  Undaunted, one of the team leaders says: “There are some sheer drops at Pikes Peak in which any sort of self-preservation kicks in and you [a human driver] slow down a bit. We want to go up at the speed that few normal drivers would ever think of attempting.”

This particular bit of research is funded by automobile companies, not DARPA, but one can readily imagine that the Defense Department is paying close attention.  After all, the Department has an announced goal of making something like a third of its ground vehicles driverless by 2015, though I don’t know the precise parameters of that goal.  Imagine the potential not only for driving trucks (remember how vulnerable trucks were in Iraq for so long).  Imagine also the potential for ground reconnaissance or, for that matter, for tactical deceptions or feints.  Armed versions of such vehicles might someday even provide a commander the ability to order a subordinate unit to make a suicidal stand to cover everyone else’s retreat without actually requiring any friendlies to actually sacrifice themselves.

In any event, aside from the sheer whiz-bangery (that is a word, right?), all of this research strikes me as fascinating in the way that illuminates the difference between us and some of our adversaries.  One of the continuing jihadist taunts  aimed at the U.S. military is that it is made up of wusses who are afraid to go mano a mano, instead relying on high-tech widgets and airpower.  Efforts to take drivers out of trucks and perhaps even other vehicles will further confirm to the jihadists what they think they know about us.  Meanwhile, we believe blindly–and not necessarily incorrectly–that technology is good and if it can substitute for humans, all the better.  The jihadists live in a heroic society and we live in a post-heroic society.  I gotta say that heroic societies may generate better stories but in the long run post-heroic societies tend to be the winners.

In addition, I think that the progress on driverless ground vehicles is yet another example of how high-tech militaries are progressively taking the people off of the battlefield.  Troop densities are getting lower and lower.  Recall, for instance, that Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld pushed for what appeared to be a preposterously small force to overthrow Saddam’s regime.  And yet it worked.  It wasn’t a large enough force to deal with an insurgency, but that fact shouldn’t be allowed to conceal that in March and April 2003 a few did a job that would only recently have required many.  Then, of course, there is the ever increasing use of UAVs which are rapidly becoming UCAVs, unmanned combat aerial vehicles.  Meanwhile, there are all sorts of unmanned projects in the air-to-air realm, apparently.

Certainly, for the foreseeable future warfare will continue to be a human activity.  Nevertheless–and it pains me to say this–I do wonder if some aspects of “friction” may not be reduced.  Clausewitz teaches us that friction is omnipresent, and he’s right, but some of the major causes of friction that he highlights, things like fear, fatigue, hunger, etc., either don’t happen to machines or happen to a far lesser degree to the remote control operators of these machines as these sit in air conditioned rooms thousands of miles away.

In short, stay tuned.

Published in: on April 10, 2010 at 3:33 AM  Leave a Comment  

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