The U.S. Army tested technology to power a driverless truck convoy along an empty stretch of Michigan highway Thursday as part of the first step toward a network of fully autonomous cars and trucks.

The state government’s partnership with Warren, Mich.-based U.S. Army Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center, or TARDEC, also raised the possibility that Michigan will be ground zero in developing autonomous technology for commercial trucks.

“We have a shared interest in a lot of the advanced capabilities and technologies that not only enable our military to succeed in combat but also enable our commercial industries,” said Paul Rogers, director of the Army’s research center.

TARDEC is developing its vehicle-to-infrastructure capabilities to increase safety, reduce distracting tasks and carry supplies for soldiers, he said.

The four-vehicle convoy of tractor-trailers on Interstate 69, about 40 miles east of Flint, Mich., showed the trucks’ ability to communicate with roadside units set up by the Michigan Department of Transportation. The so-called vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) connectivity is a crucial step toward building a network of autonomous commercial trucks and passenger vehicles.

Eventually, V2I will be able to send vehicles information about traffic signals and relay information about collisions on the road, among other data.

The Army’s partnership with the state signaled Michigan’s enthusiasm to be seen as a leader in next-generation mobility and innovation.

Michigan Lt. Gov. Brian Calley sat in the lead truck, while Gov. Rick Snyder’s truck brought up the rear. Each truck had a person behind the wheel, although they didn’t operate it.

Snyder called the Army a cornerstone partner in its bid to remain the hub of the transportation industry.

“This is an opportunity to show true leadership in one of the most exciting developments and evolutions in technology that we’ve seen in decades,” Snyder said.

State officials said they hoped the demonstration would signal to companies in Silicon Valley and elsewhere that Michigan is building the infrastructure to test vehicles with autonomous features and the next generation in mobility. Google, which is developing a driverless car, announced plans last month to open a 53,000-square-foot lab in nearby Novi, Mich.

Two bills expected to go to committee in the Michigan legislature this summer would advance the pace of adoption.

One would allow manufacturers to pilot autonomous vehicles, a departure from the current law that requires an operator to be inside the car to take over in an emergency. The other would establish standards for the on-demand vehicle networks, governing what kind of data and crash information is collected.

“The law is becoming more outdated day by day as technology advances and other states seek the new automotive industry for themselves,” said Sen. Mike Kowall, the sponsor of both bills.

Michigan’s dominance in auto research and development “is under attack from several states and countries who desire to supplant our leadership in transportation,” Kowall said.

Other states are targeting the jobs and revenue that developing autonomous technology could attract. In addition to Michigan and Washington D.C., seven states currently allow self-driving vehicles to be tested on public roads if a human driver is present, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Only Nevada permits fully autonomous cars and trucks.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is expected to release federal guidelines regulating autonomous vehicles later this year.

Thursday’s demonstration marked the beginning of the Army’s long-term vision for fully autonomous convoys, a complex endeavor, officials said. Eventually, the trucks will need to perform difficult maneuvers such as K-turns on their own.

“It’s more than just writing four lines of code,” said Robert Sadowski, the Army’s chief roboticist.

Designing autonomous vehicles for the Army is more difficult than for the commercial sector because they will be used in combat zones and must handle off-road conditions and operate in areas where GPS doesn’t work, such as jungles and buildings, Sadowski added.

The Dedicated Short-Range Communications radios inside the trucks tested on I-69 are the first step in the Army’s foray into vehicle-to-infrastructure autonomy. They allow for vehicle-to-vehicle communication as well as vehicle-to-infrastructure connectivity. Both are necessary to create the network of transponders that public roadways need in order for connected vehicles to move forward.

Cab of a U.S. Army self-driving truck.

Cab of a U.S. Army self-driving truck. (Photo: U.S. Army)

The Army currently uses what it calls its Autonomous Mobility Appliqué System for driver-assist functions such as lane departure warning and adaptive cruise control, features that are already available on many mainstream cars. The Army said it will retrofit its vehicles with the upgraded autonomous systems rather than buy new ones.

Public opinion remains a barrier to adopting fully autonomous vehicles.

Only 16 percent of Americans feel comfortable with the idea of riding in a fully autonomous vehicle, according to a survey released last month by the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute.

The survey found that 46 percent of Americans want to retain full control while driving, while 39 percent said that they would prefer a partially self-driving vehicle in which the driver could take control if necessary.

“Overall public opinion has been remarkably consistent over the two years that this survey has been conducted, despite the increased media coverage of self-driving vehicles,” said Brandon Schoettle, a human factors researcher at the institute.

But even if soldiers are now skeptical of robotic vehicles, they are likely to embrace autonomous features once they realize that the technology can help them mitigate risk and avoid repetitive tasks, the Army’s Sadowski said.

The vehicles, for example, can also alleviate the 120- to 150-pound load soldiers must sometimes carry.

“We’re trying to take a load off a soldier’s back,” Sadowski said.

The Army’s vision is to create an autonomous system that is smart enough to “go around the corner and tell me what you see” in a combat zone, he said.

But that is probably 10 to 20 years from being realized.

Sadowski is not surprised when people question whether robots can perform certain tasks better than a human.

“There should be healthy skepticism,” Sadowski said.