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The U.S. Army has begun testing radio technology on a convoy of tractor-trailers along Interstate 69 in the first step toward driverless military vehicles.

The technology, called dedicated short-range communications, allows the vehicles to “talk” with each other and with roadside sensors by communicating things like location, speed and driving conditions. The Army’s Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center (TARDEC) has been testing it for years in closed environments, but this week marks their first tests on a public highway.

“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.”

Michigan — specifically the 21-mile stretch of I-69 in St. Clair and Lapeer counties where the convoys will operate — was chosen for the project because of its proximity to TARDEC’s headquarters in Warren, and the fact that Michigan has the connected vehicle infrastructure available for the testing. The Army’s I-69 route will include six roadside sensors that will collect data and talk back to the vehicles.

The sensors are supplied by MDOT and are one piece of a larger network of connected roadways the department is deploying in southeast Michigan.

The four-vehicle convoy will appear normal; drivers will be in full control at all times. The data being collected during the trips, however, will help the vehicles sense brake lights, upcoming curves in the road, bridge heights, lane closures and other potential obstacles.

The Army has no specific timetable to deploy fully autonomous military vehicles, but Halleaux said over the next few years TARDEC will expand its testing capabilities to eventually include things like platooning, where one lead truck controls the speed and direction of other trucks behind it. To help ensure soldier safety on longer missions, the Army has been experimenting with a number of autonomous features.

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.”

The Army last month held informational meetings to explain to local residents what they’d be seeing on the highway. “We want to be good neighbors on the roadways,” Halleaux said.

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