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Like with most other technological advancements, it’s the military that is likely to finally bring about the adoption of autonomous vehicles. The US Army has fleets of trucks numbering hundreds of thousands, and the requisite personnel to drive them. To ease up on personnel costs and to increase efficiency, it’s been testing convoys of autonomous trucks following a single truck driven by a human.

Testing involved convoys as large as 10 trucks, all equipped with advanced onboard computers, radar, and cameras.

“One vehicle drives and a number of vehicles can follow,” said Paul Rogers, director of the Army’s Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center. “You won’t need as many drivers. You see commercial truck operators trying similar platooning projects at highway speeds.”

The Army is now planning to take trials to the next phase, with a road test of vehicle-to-infrastructure radio linked system of at least four trucks. Each truck will communicate with roadside systems, transmitting its location and speed in real-time.

A stretch of highway in Michigan is being equipped with $5,000 transponders with a range of 300 metres.

If the trials prove the viability of the project, the Army will begin retrofitting its fleet of trucks with the systems. For test vehicles, the systems cost about $175,000 per vehicle, but due to economies of scale, mass production should bring the costs down by some 90 percent at least, says Rogers.

The implications of this could be enormous. The military has always been at the forefront of adopting and legitimising new technologies – from aviation to the internet itself. In many countries, it’s the only organisation with enough clout and finances to make such projects a reality.