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Pentagon in race over self-driving cars

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A Jaguar I-PACE self-driving car being unveiled by Waymo in the Manhattan borough of New York City in March. Waymo and General Motors are racing to develop autonomous vehicles to deploy in ride-hailing fleets.

Washington

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 theatre for the Army before we'll have self-driving cars on the streets," Michael Griffin, the undersecretary of defence 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 per cent of casualties in combat zones can been attributed to military personnel delivering food, fuel and other logistics, Mr 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," Mr 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?"

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Technology and car companies including Alphabet' 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 US highways in some locations. Waymo has been working on the technology for more than a decade, and most other companies have encountered significant hurdles, highlighted by the death of a pedestrian who was struck by an autonomous Uber test SUV in March.

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.

Mr 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 about the Pentagon's plans. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which Mr Griffin oversees, has been funding research into self-driving cars for years and sponsored its first competition for the vehicles in 2004.

With an annual budget of almost US$700 billion, the Pentagon can afford to aggressively pursue autonomous vehicle technology well beyond fuel and food delivery trucks. The Army, for instance, is pushing forward with efforts to develop unmanned tanks and smarter vehicles for bomb disarmament, though many of those technologies will be remote-controlled, not autonomous.

Major Alan L Stephens, an officer at the Mounted Requirements Division of the US Army Maneuver Center of Excellence in Georgia, said in December that the Army wants to start testing light, fast remote-controlled tanks with the same firepower as the current 70-plus-tonne manned M1 Abrams tank within the next five years.

BAE Systems plc, the maker of the Army's manned Armored Multi-Purpose Vehicle, also makes unmanned vehicles known as the Ironclad and the Armed Robotic Combat Vehicle. The Ironclad, which looks like a miniature tank missing a gun turret, is expected to have roles in reconnaissance, evacuations of injured personnel and explosive ordnance disposal, according to the London-based company's website.

Offshore, the Navy is seeking help developing technology for the next generation of large and extra-large unmanned underwater vehicles to incorporate artificial intelligence so they can handle navigation hazards such as deep-draft commercial ship traffic, fishing activities, marine mammals and prospecting for oil, gas or minerals.

Lockheed Martin Corp and Boeing Co, the largest and second-largest US contractors, are competing on the programme, with a critical design review scheduled for December. The effort to field autonomous vehicles in combat comes amid a broader push by the Pentagon to use technological innovation to "increase lethality," in the words of Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis. But the implications of using technology in this way have raised the antennae of socially conscious employees at some of Silicon Valley's biggest companies.

Thousands of employees at Alphabet's Google recently demanded an end to deals letting the military use the company's artificial intelligence technology. Mr Mattis visited Google headquarters in Mountain View, California, last year to discuss with executives the best ways to use AI, cloud computing and cybersecurity for the Pentagon.

Among critics' concerns is the potential development of autonomous weapons that make their own life-and-death targeting decisions. Ash Carter, who was defense secretary under president Barack Obama, told a Silicon Valley audience in 2016 that "in the matter of the use of lethal force, there will always be - at least speaking for the United States - a human being involved in decision making." WP