Then & Now: Nobody, Take the Wheel!

By March 9, 2017September 1st, 2018Acquisition, Army ALT Magazine
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1971, 1988, 2017: Nearly 50 years ago, Army began tinkering with driverless vehicles.

By Mr. Robert E. Coultas

Almost every day we hear or read about advances in transportation technology—from flying drones delivering packages over long distances, pilotless airplanes buzzing the skies, and driverless vehicles traveling across the country at 60 mph with a human “monitor” to be used only in case of emergency.

Vehicle manufacturers and large tech corporations around the globe are researching, developing and testing partially autonomous vehicles arrayed with cameras, lidar [light detection and ranging, a method of navigating by tracking light pulses], radar and GPS that would safely navigate, avoid obstacles and obey traffic signs. Their ultimate goal is to make completely autonomous vehicles, with the only human element coming in the form of passengers.

But what we think of today as routine technology news would have seemed impossible nearly 50 years ago, when “WOW!” stuff was found mainly on “Star Trek” and in science fiction and spy movies and novels.

“Army Depot Introduces Driverless Tractors” was the headline on a short article on of the April 1971 edition of Army Research and Development magazine (a predecessor to Army AL&T). Ghosts “are driving tractors around warehouses at three U.S. Army depots these days,” the article jokingly read. The explanation: The invisible drivers were actually “electronic controls” that guided the tractor on an electronic embedded track. It was one of the early uses of artificial intelligence in the logistics world. The U.S. Army Materiel Command was evaluating the driverless tractors at Sharpe and Sacramento Army depots in California and the Atlanta depot in Georgia. The Sharpe tractor was expected to save taxpayers about $28,000 annually in shipping and receiving costs “and many times that if the current experiences are successful, leading to installation of the system at other Army depots.”

Almost two decades later, when autonomous vehicles were becoming more advanced, an article on of the July – August 1988 edition of Army RD&A Bulletin (a later name for this publication) reported that the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), with support from scientists at the Engineers Research Institute, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (now the Army Geospatial Center), was developing technology to create an autonomous vehicle with “smart” capabilities “to guide itself on a planned route over rough terrain, avoiding obstacles, and, if necessary, change its route.” Now the corps boasts many remotely operated vehicles that can operate on land, water and in the air. They are used in search-and-rescue missions, conducting dam inspections for earthquake damage and collecting geospatial data—such as the Yeti robotic rover, whose ground-penetrating radar has been used to examine polar terrain for dangerous ice cracks and crevasses.

Though the Autonomous Land Vehicle project was an ambitious program, it wasn’t until DARPA’s first Grand Challenge, in March 2004, that technology had sufficiently evolved to really begin to achieve that earlier vision. At the DARPA Urban Challenge of 2007, some of today’s players in self-driving cars were major sponsors of team efforts. Google, for example, was a sponsor of the second-place Stanford Racing team. The continuing competition among these players is bringing greater technology toward producing a completely autonomous vehicle.

Ten years on, Army autonomous vehicles are emerging that will be operated remotely, from anywhere on Earth, during future military operations.

Consequently, speed and recovering from enemy electronic warfare attacks will become top priorities, according to a story published Oct. 6, 2016, by Jerome Aliotta of U.S. Army Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center (TARDEC) Public Affairs.

The article describes how, in late 2016, TARDEC robotics engineers traveled to the Woomera Test Range in South Australia to continue work begun in 2015 on the Trusted Operation of a Robotic Vehicle in a Contested Environment, a joint multiyear program to evaluate the resilience of autonomously operating a vehicle from across the globe—in this case, by other TARDEC engineers in Michigan. At Woomera, TARDEC engineers tested their robotic vehicle, a modified Jeep Wrangler Rubicon running a Robotic Technology Kernel, an autonomous mobility system. This was coupled with an Australian-developed satellite-on-the-move system to transfer data between a control station and the moving robotic vehicle.

Although the data from the experiment is still under review, TARDEC engineer Keith Briggs confirmed for the article success with the autonomous vehicle’s pathfinding algorithms and its ability to get up to operationally relevant speeds with minimal operator takeover. “With improvements in path planning, material classification, and possibly utilizing a priori data, we expect to get the vehicle speed up in the near term,” Briggs was quoted as saying.

At General Motors’ Futurama exhibit at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York, the automaker envisioned “abundant sunshine, fresh air and fine green parkways upon which cars could drive themselves.”

Now, almost 80 years later, that vision of a driverless world (and a whole lot more) may soon become a reality. In an interview with, Jim McBride, Ford’s autonomous vehicles tech lead, calls the coming developments “a paradigm shift”—a transition to driverless vehicles very similar to the transition from horse-drawn carriages to automobiles in the late 19th century.

For a historical tour of Army AL&T over the past 56 years, go to the Army AL&T Magazine archives at

This article is scheduled to be published in the April – June 2017 issue of Army AL&T Magazine.

TARDEC robotics engineers went to the Woomera Test Range in South Australia to evaluate the resilience of autonomously driving a Jeep Wrangler Rubicon operated from across the globe by TARDEC engineers in Warren, Michigan. (Photo by Isiah Davenport)

TARDEC robotics engineers went to the Woomera Test Range in South Australia to evaluate the resilience of autonomously driving a Jeep Wrangler Rubicon operated from across the globe by TARDEC engineers in Warren, Michigan. (Photo by Isiah Davenport)

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“Army Depot Introduces Driverless Tractors,” Army Research and Development, April – June 1971

“The Army Engineer Topographic Laboratories,” RD&A Bulletin, July – August 1988

“World of Tomorrow,” 1939 New York World’s Fair newsreel

“Using long-distance control, Army tests robotic vehicle along challenging Australian terrain,” TARDEC Public Affairs