Forget Uber, Waymo and Tesla: The next big name in self-driving vehicles could be the Pentagon.
"We're going to have self-driving vehicles in theater for the Army before we'll have self-driving cars on the streets," Michael Griffin, the undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, told lawmakers this month at a hearing on Capitol Hill. "But the core technologies will be the same."
The stakes for the military are high. Fifty-two percent of casualties in combat zones can been attributed to military personnel delivering food, fuel and other logistics, Griffin said. Removing people from that equation with systems run on artificial intelligence could reduce injuries and deaths significantly.
"You're in a very vulnerable position when you're doing that kind of activity," Griffin said. "If that can be done by an automated unmanned vehicle with a relatively simple AI driving algorithm where I don't have to worry about pedestrians and road signs and all of that, why wouldn't I do that?"
Technology and auto companies including Alphabet's Waymo unit and General Motors are racing to develop autonomous vehicles to deploy in ride-hailing fleets. Uber Technologies has introduced experimental self-driving trucks to U.S. highways in some locations. Waymo has been working on the technology for more than a decade.
Beyond the technical challenge of engineering a car that can safely traverse chaotic city streets on its own, civilian self-driving developers must navigate a still-evolving legal and regulatory environment. Passenger vehicles must comply with scores of federal vehicle safety requirements governing everything from turn indicators to braking systems, many of which assume drivers will be human.
But the military's autonomous vehicles won't roam regulation-free just because they may be headed toward battlefields, according to Karlyn Stanley, a researcher and lawyer at the RAND Corp.
"The regulatory structure here in the U.S. and the countries where the U.S. may be sending troops are very different," Stanley said. "How autonomous vehicles are going to be regulated — in terms of safety, cybersecurity, privacy and liability — those are going to be critical issues" the Pentagon will have to address as well, she added.
The Pentagon has a long history of support that helped to develop or refine key technologies that become widespread later, including spaceflight and the internet.
Griffin said the Pentagon "absolutely must leverage" what private companies are doing to develop self-driving cars, though he didn't mention any by name and his office declined to comment when asked for more details.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which Griffin oversees, has been funding research into self-driving cars for years and sponsored its first competition for the vehicles in 2004.
"The military is very eager to learn and build upon what's been done commercially as opposed to try to reinvent and do it themselves," Stanley said.