Vehicles on military bases conjure up images of rumbling tanks, noisy supply trucks and equipment-laden Humvees. But for the next 90 days, personnel and visitors at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall in Arlington can be ferried about in a pair of quiet, futuristic-looking autonomous mini-buses.

Base leaders on June 19 kicked off a three-month pilot program with Local Motors Industries to see how well the company’s “Olli” vehicles perform. The initiative is intended to provide convenience for passengers, reduce traffic congestion on the base and improve mission readiness, they said.

“This opens up the door to many technological advances,” said Maj. Gen. Anthony Funkhouser, deputy commanding general for military and international operations for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. “You can take this technology into the battlefield.”

The electric mini-buses, which can seat up to eight people and have space in the center for additional passengers, will be manned by operators (“stewards,” in the company’s parlance) to give riders additional peace of mind. The firm eventually hopes to switch to remote “tele-operators” and then finally to fully autonomous operation,  said Jay Rogers, co-founder and CEO of Local Motors Industries.

From now through August, the company will collect vehicle data to determine the best routes around the narrow, elongated military base.

Company officials held a program-launching ceremony later that day and allowed guests at an earlier press briefing to be driven around the base in the mini-buses. The vehicles made little noise and started and stopped more smoothly than likely would have been possible with a human controlling the accelerator and brakes. 

The two-wheel-drive buses use radar and LIDAR (light detection and ranging) to sense nearby objects and can use horns to warn motorists and pedestrians about impending collisions, but the algorithm for that is complicated by human behavior, Rogers said. The next generation of Olli buses will feature screens on their front and side panels to alert pedestrians and drivers via text and pictograms about the vehicles’ impending movements, he said.

The vehicles typically move about 10 mph, but Rogers recommended passengers use the provided seat belts, if possible. Being unbelted in what in effect is a mobile living room is “really all about physics,” he said.

Monitors near the ceiling in front of the buses showed the views from the vehicles’ cameras, while another screen in the rear was capable of flashing messages. 

Funded through a Congressional Program of Interest, the initiative is a collaboration between the base and the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center, Energy and Environment, U.S. Army Installations, Marine Corps Installations Command and Installation-Werx. In addition to Local Motors Industries, the program’s non-federal partners include the Northern Virginia Regional Commission and Amazon Web Services.

Local Motors Industries operates in 10 countries around the globe, including Australia and Denmark, and uses similar technology across the Potomac River at Maryland’s National Harbor. Officials from that state have authorized the vehicles to be used on public roads.

Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall is not the first U.S. military base to experiment with Olli-like autonomous vehicles. Fort Bragg in North Carolina two years ago conducted a test program in which similar vehicles transported wounded personnel between their housing areas and the base’s medical facility, officials said.

In addition, the Marine Corps has been evaluating autonomous vehicles for the past year and has a proving ground for them at Miramar Air Station in San Diego. Such vehicles also have been demonstrated at the United States Military Academy at West Point.

Local Motors Industries named the vehicles “Olli” after the cartoon Ollie-Ollie-Octopus because it had cephalopods flitting about, Rogers said.

“We sort of felt like Olli as a little pod of vehicles instead of one big bunch,” he said, adding that the logo’s Ls are like two little feet and the O resembles a head on top.

If the pilot program proves successful, base leaders said they may press for autonomous-vehicle service to and from the Pentagon and nearby Metrorail stations. 

State officials are trying to encourage people to use transit and the Olli pilot program helps in that effort, said Cathy McGhee, director of innovation and research for the Office of the Virginia Secretary of Transportation.

“We’re really excited,” she said. “We’ve been talking about it for a really long time.”


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