WARREN, MI – They’ve been producing and engineering military vehicles in this Detroit suburb at what locals simply call “the Tank Plant” since World War II.
The facility dates to 1940 and built 25,000 tanks and a total of 44,000 vehicles before production ended in the 1990s.
The site lives on as the home of the Tank-automotive and Armaments Command TACOM, which has responsibility for the life cycle of U.S. Army and Marine Corps vehicles. The Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center, or TARDEC, is co-located in Warren.
While it enjoys a storied past, the sprawling location now is becoming the source of the Army’s urgent drive into the future: Driverless autonomous vehicles. Their broadly ranging duties in modern warfare include saving soldiers’ lives.
TARDEC, which celebrates its 70th anniversary this year, has R&D responsibility for advanced technology used in ground-vehicle systems, with primary emphasis on power and mobility. Its purview covers dozens of mission-specific vehicles ranging from giant 80-ton tanks to troop and cargo carriers, right down to those roughly the size of golf carts.
TARDEC has numerous self-driving vehicles in various stages of development, but only one – if indeed it can be described as a traditional vehicle – is operational: A small robot called TALON that blows up deadly roadside IEDs (improvised explosive devices) spotted by drones or helicopters.
TARDEC officials say the robot has been deployed for some time in the Middle East, where it ranks high in popularity.
Much of TARDEC’s work is classified, but one mission is not: Seeking collaboration with outside sources on autonomous technology. Paul Decker, who recently took over as director of TARDEC’s National Automotive Center, says autonomous vehicles will be “a major focus” in his new job.
“We’re just starting discussions with (potential) partners and collaborators, especially covering on-road vehicles but also heavily off-road vehicles. We’ve got on-road maps but not off-road” where many military vehicles typically operate under extreme conditions such as snow, ice, sand and swirling dust, he says. “These aren’t captured by Google,” Decker points out.
Google, however, is an acknowledged leader in autonomous technology and is among those TARDEC seeks to work with closely. Others include Apple, Tesla and practically every OEM and automotive supplier worldwide that’s chasing the technology.