Driven – Mobility Moment: Bernie Theisen, TARDEC

Today we recognize all the autonomous innovations that are making their way into the newest cars and trucks available on the market. But where did that technology come from in the first place?

A lot of people don’t actually, I think, give credit to a lot of the technologies transfer from the military to the civilian market.

That was Bernie Theisen. He’s an engineer with the United States Army Tank Automotive Research Development and Engineering Center, or TARDEC. Based right here at the Detroit Arsenal. Bernie’s my guest for this episode of Driven’s Mobility Moment’s podcast, where we explore how the Detroit region is leading the world in next generation mobility.

Stay tuned, because Bernie and I are talking about the role TARDEC plays in self-driving development, and what that means for our civilian vehicles too. I’m your host Claire Charlton.

Welcome to the Mobility Moments podcast. Thank you so much for joining me Bernie.

Sure. My pleasure.

I’m hoping that we can start by talking about the work that takes place at TARDEC, which is the Tank Automotive Research Development and Engineering Center, right there in Warren.

I’d be glad to talk a little bit about TARDEC. So TARDEC is one of a half a dozen labs and we call them RDECs, Research Development and Engineering Centers, that make up the army’s core research. So each lab has a different purpose. So ours is Tank Automotive Research Development and Engineering Center. So we focus on wheeled and ground vehicles. We also do fuels, water, lube, bridging. Different things like that.

Some of the other labs that are part of the same RDECs are CERDECs, which is the Computer Electronics one. Or AMRDEC which is Aviation Missiles.

Bernie, how did you come to work at TARDEC? And what’s an average day like for you?

I actually started right out of college. I was finishing up my master’s degree in mechanical engineering and I started looking for a job. Some of the other folks at school were interning there, and they suggested I applied. And I did. I really like it. Everyday there is a new and interesting day. It’s not like you’re on the assembly line building the same piece over and over again. Or doing the same task repeatedly.

We have several different areas. I focus on ground robotics. In ground robotics we’re responsible for everything up to the ones you can hold into your hand, all the way up to the giant trucks and track vehicles. So we always are encountering new and interesting programs and projects. And part of the things is we do a decent amount of travel to test them in different locations and environmental conditions.

I really enjoy what I do. I like going to work every day to get involved and build things.

I understand that Secretary of the Army Mark Esper is a big proponent of autonomous vehicle technology, and he’s leading that modernization of the transportation within the army. So can you talk a little bit about what that means and what changes are being made?

In general, the army has always been and working towards trying to have overmatch. Having a better capability and the safest equipment. And the best way the army can prevent a soldier from being injured is to remove them from being in a vehicle, or part of that fight. Just like a bow and arrow shot farther than a sword could make contact, it put that safety distance between those warriors.

So if we can have a soldier operate a vehicle from even 100 feet away than being right inside the vehicle, it provides that soldier additional safety that he wouldn’t be given if they were in that vehicle.

So you did some testing about this time last year with, what I understand is the four vehicle convoy that was an international convoy, went right around the Blue Water Bridge into Canada. And I understand that the vehicles were equipped with specialized autonomous technology. Can you tell me about that experience?

Sure. A lot of that work we were doing was actually focused around a technology that a different group, not the Department of Defense but the Department of Transportation has really invested in. And it’s called DSRC, dedicated short range communications. They’ve actually been pushing legislation to try to get this employed, not only into new vehicles but into legacy vehicles.

What DSRC does is, you may have heard the terms V2V or V2I or V2X which sort of covers everything. And V2V basically stands for vehicle-to-vehicle. V2I stands for vehicle to infrastructure. And what it does is it allows radios to talk between each other. To tell them exactly where the cars are around them, where the exit ramps are. In an emergency situation, if an ambulance was coming up the road, they will let you know that there is a fast moving safety vehicle approaching, to be aware.

Or even from our standing point, sometimes you’re driving on the highway and you see those large military convoys of green trucks that never go faster than 55 miles an hour, and it would warn you that hey there’s a large slow moving convoy coming up. So that way, drivers can be safe.

And a lot of this is really for the DSRC standpoint based on safety. A lot of everything that can be do post-crash, which in the automotive industry is really called passive safety. So you’re talking about your seat belts, your airbags, your crumple zones, really the industry has sort of maxed out on that technology. So everybody’s been working on what’s more referred to as active safety.

So if you’ve heard collision mitigation braking, or lane departure warning, DSRC is another ADAS or advance driver assist system that tries to help you before you get into an accident, and stop those accidents from occurring.

If you’re unaware, in the army we follow federal motor vehicle highway safety standards. These are basically rules and regulations that all the commercial trucks follow. The work that we were doing with the four truck convoy was a mixed convoy of two U.S. Army vehicles and two commercial class eight tractor trailers. And we were using the DSRC technology to pass back braking and steering and acceleration commands.

So if you’re familiar with the SAE levels of autonomy, I don’t know if you’re familiar with them or not?

I am!

Okay. So basically the last truck in that convoy was one of our military M-915s, which is sort of like a military version of class eight truck trailer combination. On that last truck was really doing SAE level four type autonomy.


The driver had no responsibility in the vehicle. It was following the other vehicles in front of it. It went across the border. As far as we’re aware, it’s the first time there’s ever been a robotic truck do an international bridge crossing.

Cool. So what did your team learn from that particular experience?

There was a few different things we were testing. One, we have some partnerships, and we work a lot of times with the Michigan Department of Transportation. But it also, at that time, we were working the the Ontario Ministry of Transportation. So there’s a lot of things that happen with radios, especially when you put them in big metal cages, sort of like a Faraday cage, which is basically a bridge.

So what we want to do, is we wanted to test our DSRC radios and see if we had any issues crossing across the large metal bridge. And we also wanted to make sure that we had no issues when we were handing off to some of the V2I nodes that were on the Ontario side from the Michigan side, or U.S. side.

Interesting! So the Blue Water Bridge was really critical because you were concerned, or your team was concerned, that the structure of the bridge would interfere with the technology.

That’s correct. It’s not just us, I think it’s the industry in general. There’s a lot of these type situations. Luckily in Michigan too, we have a couple different test courses here. There’s the smaller Mcity one, the University of Michigan campus, and then there’s the ACM or the American Center for Mobility. Which is on the old Willow Run Airport.


We’re actually going be testing out there next week.

Oh, right. What are you going to be testing at ACM?

Basically doing some different messaging across our DSRC radios. They have a couple different scenarios built up to challenge them. They have a tunnel which is metal lined. They have some different freeway loops and exit ramps and entrance ramps. And then on top of that, these are slightly different autonomy kits that we’re going be using on the vehicles.

And actually I don’t even want to call these ones autonomy kits in a traditional military sense. They’re more of like a stripped-down version that we could potentially use in situations for more commercial type efforts. A lot of times when we go to theater we actually use a lot of what we call white trucks, or non-military trucks. And sometimes we want to equip them with some of the same capability that we have on our trucks.

Okay. So now that you mentioned it, it seems to make sense that the military, in developing autonomous technology, would work alongside with private sector, the civilian sector, in their own development of autonomous technology. Is there collaboration that takes place? And if so can you tell me about it?

That’s a good question and a hard question to answer too. One of the good things and one of the reasons we’re based here at the Detroit Arsenal is because we’re really in the heart of the automotive industry. Not only U.S., OEM, several Ford OEMs and Tier 1 suppliers are based right around here. And a lot of the suppliers, along with the OEMs, have very intense autonomous programs going on right now.

Everybody’s trying to get something to the field first, or at least if you believe the hype, trying to get to the field first. But that we get to take advantage of. And the Detroit Arsenal, we’ve been doing ground robotics or unmanned systems since the ’50s. We’ve been working on our convoy technology, which usually in the trucking industry is referred to as platooning, for over 20 years or since before I started here.

So now with the advent of the big push of a lot of these non-traditional vendors like Uber and Tesla and some of these others, there’s been a lot more interest in the field. And it’s really been driving the cost of sensors down. Probably a lot of people in the general public never really heard of what a LIDAR is. It is before a lot of these autonomous companies or autonomy vendors came out.

LIDAR technology, which is basically light detection and ranging, where you send out a beam of light, right, and then you get the return and you measure the intensity, the time of flight that it took to get back, and gives you information about what’s out there. It’s really not a new technology, it’s been around for decades. People in the aerospace industry has been using it since the ’60s.


And we’ve been using it on our robots since before I started there. But, now you could go online and buy a low cost LIDAR for a few thousand dollars. And it has a ton of capability. And previous to this, a lot of the LIDARS we were using were quite expensive because they were custom built or specially built for us. But now that the automotive industry is adding a lot of these active sensing technologies, and really getting into the autonomy field, it’s really dropped the cost of a lot of these sensors for us.

Okay. That makes sense. So can you tell me with regard to autonomous technology, how will it be deployed in real combat situations? And why is it so important?

So TARDEC does the research for the technology. We don’t develop what the military refers to as TTPs, or tactics, techniques and protocols. We have a whole other organization called TRADOC. Training Requirements and Development Command.


And they really write the doctorate of how our soldiers fight. Whether it be autonomous technology, water purification, a brand new rifle. Regardless of the technology, they are the ones who are responsible for implementing the way, they change the way we fight. From the TARDEC stand point, we build and enable the capabilities. We don’t really decide how the war fighter will use that technology.

But we do work with them very closely.


So just like any product or, if you think about it, as a market survey maybe you’re walking around the mall, and you get stopped. “Hey, do you want to come taste this new coffee and tell us what you think?” Well that’s an oversimplified version of what we do with the soldiers. Usually we’ll build a new capability. It may be an autonomous truck per se. And then we’ll put it in the hands of soldiers, and we’ll get feedback.

And then we basically modify the technology or the capability to address their new needs or wants.

So the soldiers themselves, or the Marines, are your end users, and they help you define the user experience. Which is becoming so important now for technology, for autonomous technology especially. We’re moving away from the driver experience to the user experience. So it sounds like you have a hand in that. At least in this particular application.

I’d agree with that statement. And in the future, where we’re working with your vehicle, your robot, almost to be like an agent, a player. SIRI or Alexa, where you’re like, “No, I said play the birthday song!” To almost intuitively be like, “Would you like me to play the birthday song for you?” Because they know it’s your birthday. I mean that technology is not there now. A lot of it keeps in par with what you see in the consumer electronic world of intuitiveness of the AI or the algorithms to figure out what the user wants.

But the ultimate goal is for the robots or the remote control vehicles, depending on how you deem them, to work better like that.

Okay. So now you mentioned the cooperative agreement that TARDEC has with the Michigan Department of Transportation and the MEDC through the PlanetM initiative. Can you share with me why that’s so important?

Just like a consumer who drives on the roads, the army uses the country and infrastructure. We’ve got to make sure when new technologies, such as DSRC, become available, and they’re being implemented, that our trucks are compatible and work with it. Michigan has, I believe, the most amount of roads and nodes of DSRC permanently installed in the infrastructure. So there’s several highway corridors, and under Governor Snyder, they’ve been really increasing you see in the number of mileages.

So that different Tier 1s and OEMs that are locally located can use these DSRC nodes, or sometimes competitive technology like the 5G network can be tested here in Michigan. And right now the federal government also has not done national language for autonomous systems. So each state right now currently has different rules, different regulations. Which is really difficult from the testing standpoint.

Because you have to be able to work in all these different states. And right now Michigan has really been pushing the bounds for letting folks test here with either driver or driverless or safety drivers and the ability to do that. So working with MDOT, we let them know some of our needs. Like the other OEMs and tier ones. So they can make those laws, make those test areas available for us here in the state of Michigan.

And that’s all part of the PlanetM or Planet Mobility.

Okay. Cool. What else do you think is important for people to know about the benefits of autonomous technology and the innovation for the army and how it relates to the civilian individual.

A lot of people don’t actually, I think, give credit to a lot of the technologies that transfer from the military to the civilian market. A big technology that’s probably 70 years old now, is radar. And we use radar pretty much now on, I would say, over 50 percent of the passenger car market. The technology was developed and funded under the Department of Defense.

Radar is one of the technologies allowing for active safety and autonomous vehicles. Same thing with GPS or Global Positioning System. It was technology that was developed under the Department of Defense and the federal government made it available and free for everybody in the world to use.

Thank you so much, Bernie, for joining me to talk about TARDEC, about autonomous vehicles in the army, and about the work that you do. I really appreciate talking with you.

Thanks. I enjoyed the conversation. It’s always great to educate folks on what we do at TARDEC and how the army supports not only our men and women in the field, but the whole local economy and the way we look to further the nation.

Thanks for joining me for this episode of Driven’s Mobility Moments podcast. There’s a lot more about how the Detroit region is leading the world in next generation mobility at Join us there and subscribe to our newsletter. I’m Claire Charlton, see you soon.