A convoy of four U.S. Army trucks was seen recently rumbling down a 21-mile section of I-69 about 40 miles east of Flint, Mich.

It’s not an uncommon sight given that the Army’s Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center (TARDEC) is close by in Warren. What made this convoy different from others is the trucks were conducting the Army’s first step toward driverless military vehicles on a public highway.

The radio technology being tested is called dedicated short-range communications, and also vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) connectivity.

It allows the vehicles to “talk” with each other and with roadside sensors by communicating things like location, speed and driving conditions.

TARDEC has been testing the technology for years in closed environments and needed to see how it performed in the outside world.

“In the future, when we’re integrating more automated features in vehicles, we need to make sure they operate on public roadways,” said Doug Halleaux, public affairs officer for TARDEC. “This is the first step in getting to that point.”

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The location of the project was chosen because of its proximity to TARDEC’s headquarters, and the fact that the Michigan Department of Transportation already had the connected vehicle infrastructure available.

The six roadside sensors that collect data and talk back to the vehicles are one piece of a larger network of connected roadways the department is deploying in southeast Michigan.

During tests, a driver is behind the steering wheel at all times along with a passenger monitoring a laptop computer.

The data being collected will help the vehicles sense brake lights, upcoming curves in the road, bridge heights, lane closures and other potential obstacles.

There is no specific timetable for the Army to deploy fully driverless military vehicles.

However, over the coming years TARDEC will expand testing to eventually include things like platooning, where one lead truck controls the speed and direction of other trucks behind it.

The Army R&D center has also been experimenting with a number of autonomous features to help ensure soldier safety on longer missions.

Paul Rogers, TARDEC’s director, said in a statement, “The safety and force protection potential with automated driving may fundamentally change the way we as an Army approach logistics and transportation.”

Detroit News