Sitting high in the cab of the hulking lime-green TerraMax truck, a driver can be excused for instinctively grabbing the steering wheel. There's no need. TerraMax is a self-driving vehicle, a prototype designed to navigate and obey traffic rules -- all while the people inside, if there are any, do anything but drive.
During a recent test on property owned by manufacturer Oshkosh Truck, TerraMax barrelled down a dusty road with its driver seat empty. It stopped at a four-way intersection and waited as staged traffic resolved before obediently lurching on its way.
If the Defense Department gets its way, vehicles like TerraMax -- about as long as a typical sport utility vehicle and almost twice as high – could represent the future of transportation for the military's ground forces.
Consider 80 soldiers driving a convoy of 40 trucks across the Iraqi desert, said Joaquin Salas, spokesman for the Oshkosh, Wis.-based company. If most of those vehicles could drive themselves, the same convoy might manage with just 10 soldiers.
"You're reducing the number of people susceptible to enemy fire," said Salas, who served eight years in the U.S. Marine Corps. "It's simply amazing technology." In 2001 Congress mandated that one in three ground combat vehicles be self-driving by 2015. The idea is to free personnel for non-driving tasks such as reading maps, scanning for roadside bombs or scouting for the enemy -- and to be able to deploy vehicles altogether unoccupied.
The military's research arm turned to industry and academia to help meet that goal. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, has sponsored a series of contests since 2003 in which prototype vehicles must navigate rough terrain and avoid obstacles.
Oshkosh Truck, a public company that in August projected its 2008 sales would be about $7 billion, is fielding one of 35 teams whose vehicles passed qualifying tests this year. Some teams see the competition as a way to improve automotive technology.
"It's my view that we're not just trying to win but we're also trying to advance the topic of safer cars," said Sebastian Thrun, a computer-science professor who leads Stanford University's team. "There are so many other great uses of this technology." Thrun called TerraMax "an amazing vehicle, very sturdy" but noted that the DARPA competition is more about software than hardware.
The software that controls TerraMax is Oshkosh's own. Teledyne Technologies company Teledyne Scientific in Thousand Oaks, Calif., provided the path-planning technology, and VisLab at Parma University in Italy developed the vision systems.
On a recent afternoon, Oshkosh chief engineer John Beck programmed a course into TerraMax's onboard computer. The monitor displayed the truck's proposed path and a 360-degree view of its surroundings. External objects showed up as ambiguous red squiggles.