Polaris Industries has submitted several "driverless" vehicle prototypes to the U.S. Army for review, in the hopes of winning a supply contract to make thousands of robot-enabled military vehicles, company officials confirmed this week.
The competition for the Army contract involves Polaris and about 10 other firms and is expected to unfold in phases over 24 months, Polaris officials said.
Early winners could be offered contracts to make about five autonomous military vehicles that the Army will put through rigorous trials. From there, the Army will select one or two manufacturers to make hundreds or thousands of the rugged machines that can safely haul goods and navigate dangerous terrain without risking the life of a human driver.
For the prototypes, Polaris hired robotics experts Applied Research Associates (ARA) and Neya Systems to see if the trio could tackle a major milestone. Polaris already makes rugged military vehicles for the U.S. Army and 25 allies that boast enhanced suspensions, cooling systems, generators and sometimes armor. The next step for this contract is adding ARA's "advanced unmanned systems technology" and Neya's "autonomous systems behavior," officials said.
Should Polaris' prototype win the Army competition, it is expected to become part of the Army's Squad Multipurpose Equipment Transport (SMET) program.
Polaris Advanced Technology Director Patrick Weldon said Polaris — a Medina-based maker of motorcycles, snowmobiles, recreational and military ATVs — has developed the prototypes to tackle jobs that were "dull, dirty or dangerous. That has been our mantra."
Polaris designed its autonomous machine so the driverless vehicle could haul soldiers to mess halls, trudge supplies to troops, drive through flooded trenches or around bomb sites with ease and safety, Weldon said.
Polaris' exploration into driverless applications began in 2010. "We are now prepared to go into full production of this vehicle with 5,000 or 10,000 or however many are needed," Weldon said.
Polaris has 16 tests underway for civilian driverless capabilities, but the Army's challenge is much more intense, he said.
It could take a full year before Polaris learns how it fared with this phase of the Army contract. Then more steps will need to be taken before it would get the full contract.
In the meantime, Polaris isn't waiting to test its newfound robotic capabilities.
Last month, Polaris and Michigan-based May Mobility tested a driverless Polaris GEM shuttle in downtown Detroit that could one day transport local workers between parking lots and offices. Polaris' civilian application also faces stiff competition as Ford, General Motors, Uber, Google and Tesla race to perfect driverless automation technology. Analysts note there is big money to be made if the need and cost of human drivers can be eliminated from transportation systems.
The U.S. Army has other motivations, chief among them reducing risks for military personnel in war-torn arenas, where improvised explosive devices can alter or destroy terrain with little notice. By perfecting driverless transportation, Polaris officials hope their vehicles will be the ones deployed to deliver important military cargo without putting personnel at risk.
Neya Systems, developed by the heads of Carnegie Mellon University's Robotics Institute, has become well known for developing unmanned systems. ARA, which is an employee-owned scientific research and engineering company based in New Mexico, bought Neya earlier this year.
Frank Douma, director of the State and Local Policy Program at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, said that if Polaris succeeds in advancing robotic driving, "it could increase their share value and show they are running with the big boys in terms of developing the next big thing. … Everybody is talking about disruptive technology. But in this case, this actually is. It's a fun time."
Still other analysts have noted that Polaris' big leap into robotic driving comes at a challenging time. Polaris has recalled more than 420,000 of its nonmilitary vehicles in three years, mostly due to mechanical and fire risks. Crashes have left some riders injured or dead.
But most of the recalls have hurt Polaris' reputation, prompted lawsuits and left hundreds of customers frustrated by the wait for free repairs at dealerships.