Why Detroit’s automotive infrastructure is important to the military

People recognize Detroit as home to the automobile. But fewer people know the Detroit region as a concentrated center of defense and homeland security facilities that serve as centers of research and development for the nation’s armed forces.

From an innovation perspective, Detroit’s automotive industry and defense agencies are interconnected, especially in the development of autonomous technologies that will shape the future of mobility.

The Detroit region, with its consistently high rankings in private sector innovation, access to talent, and academic STEM R&D, is a qualified location for the Tank Automotive Research, Development & Engineering Center (TARDEC), the TARDEC National Automotive Center, Selfridge Air National Guard Base, and other significant defense assets.

“Detroit, with the automotive industry, has long been the nation’s center of innovation,” says Tammy Carnrike, chief operating officer for the Detroit Regional Chamber. “This includes the corporate world, and a strong academic presence of universities that apply technology and innovation, and testing facilities like Mcity. Then there is the TARDEC element, which is the R&D piece that can work with many different partners and players. That’s where Southeast Michigan is in a unique situation, with the best automotive innovation, technology, and research sitting right here.”

In February, Carnrike was selected by U.S. Secretary of the Army Mark T. Esper to the role of Civilian Aide to the Secretary of the Army to represent Michigan (CASA). In this role, Carnrike will be afforded a three-star protocol status in accordance with the U.S. Department of the Army Protocol Precedence List.

As a member of the Army-Southeast Michigan Advisory Council and the Governance Committee, Protect and Grow, and as an alumni of the Department of Defense’s Joint Civilian Orientation Conference, Carnrike holds significant experience for the CASA role.

Carnrike’s voice in the community is an asset to the Army and to Esper, especially with regard to the support of veterans, soldiers, and their families. She’s also well connected to the business community in Southeast Michigan and statewide.

“There is an opportunity to align the Army and the business community, and to highlight the innovation and the technology, and the future partnerships that could occur,” Carnrike says.

This May, Carnrike escorted Esper and U.S. Sen. Gary Peters on a visit to the Detroit Arsenal in Macomb County, TARDEC, and TACOM. They discussed Esper’s progressive goals for incorporating technology to modernize the Army.

“I was so impressed with Dr. Esper’s commitment to new technologies, new vehicles, and streamlined procurement procedures. The whole procurement process is so important,” she says.

Autonomous tech is critical to military

It’s easy to recognize the effect mobility technology will have on our roads, but this innovation can have a profound impact on the military, too.

“We think about next-generation mobility and autonomous vehicles in terms of cars, not all of the advantages this brings to the military,” says Carnrike. “It’s not just about logistics of transportation of goods and supplies, but about protecting human beings.”

Removing the soldier from any vehicle driving over roads with embedded explosive devices will save lives, according to Carnrike and Peters.

‘It’s important to remember that during the Iraq War, we lost more soldiers and marines in logistic operations than we did in actual combat. The reason is driving a fuel truck over a road with explosive devices embedded in the road is a very dangerous job and so if you can take the driver out, take the soldier out, and have autonomous vehicles that are engaged in supply functions, you will save soldiers’ lives,” says Peters, who is a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

The same concept applies for ground combat situations that require swarms of tanks working in conjunction with a lead tank. If some or all of the tanks can be self driving, fewer lives are exposed.

As development advances, defense and automotive innovators should be communicating closely, Peters says. Defense situations that require intelligent, off-road sensing capabilities that are virtually impossible to map--think dense forest with ever-changing landscape and foliage situations--make complex urban environments seem manageable. Michigan Technological University works closely with TARDEC to develop and test this highly advanced technology.

“In military applications, especially for combat vehicles, it’s not just about movement, it’s also about about maneuver, where you’re in certain formations and certain tactical functions. It’s highly complex for a machine to be figuring that out,” Peters says.

“That higher level of difficulty can only benefit the lower level. So [defense and automotive] have to work together and figure out how they benefit from the commercial side. and not reinvent the wheel, but take what is in the commercial side and ramp it up. We shouldn’t be working in silos. Department of Defense shouldn’t be working on autonomy while GM is working on autonomy, they should be talking to each other.”

While the region was not selected as the site of the U.S. Army’s Futures Command location, Detroit will be home to the Next Generation Combat Vehicle Cross Functional Team (NGCV CFT) at the Detroit Arsenal in Warren.

Ultimately, Michigan, and the Detroit region in particular, serves as the center of innovation for both military and civilian applications of advanced mobility.

“The two areas that will be transformed with regard to vehicles will be military and civilian, and we have both,” Peters says.

“That’s one advantage we have over some of the other places that are also seeking to be leaders in mobility. They don’t have the defense infrastructure that we have here in Michigan to do this work.”

 
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