CAMP MARMAL, Afghanistan — As soon as he saw the improvised explosive device in the road, Staff Sgt. Rodney Howard screamed at his Humvee driver to stop.
Too late. The Humvee and its four human occupants rolled over the bomb, which exploded, engulfing the armored vehicle in a huge ball of fire and pushing in the windshield near Howard's head.
Howard and his team were lucky that day eight years ago near Balad in central Iraq. Everyone was shaken up but survived without serious injuries.
"It felt like everything slowed down like a video game. I couldn't hear for three days," said Howard, 38. "That's too close to home. As squad leader it's your job to take care of your guys."
But what if no one had been in that Humvee? What if it had been driven remotely, like a drone?
The technology for driverless military vehicles is rapidly drawing closer to reality, spurred by work being done at Oshkosh Corp. and other companies, and one day convoys in combat zones could include remotely controlled vehicles.
The idea intrigues members of the Wisconsin National Guard's 829th Engineer Co. who are helping shut down bases and reclaiming materiel as combat operations draw to a close in Afghanistan. Though the unit is not traveling on roads outside bases here, many soldiers drove vehicles on prior deployments in Iraq.
Howard, who joined the Wisconsin National Guard three years ago, is on his fourth deployment, including two trips to Iraq.
"I think it would be a really good asset," Howard said Saturday night after playing in a volleyball tournament. "If we start taking fire and things get weird, we're going to want to use a remote and get the vehicle out of there."
Spc. Jasen Pomroy drove several types of road clearance vehicles in Iraq in 2010-'11 with a Wisconsin National Guard unit. He's skeptical of unmanned vehicles in war zones because combat areas are so austere and unpredictable.
"Safety-wise, yeah, it'd be good, but what happens when the computers go down or you get a flat tire? If you're fired on, who's going to fire back?" said Pomroy, 44, of Baldwin.
"In a perfect world it'd be nice. But it's not a perfect world. If it was we wouldn't be here," Pomroy said at this military installation near Mazar-i-Sharif in northern Afghanistan.
John Beck has heard the skepticism from troops who know how dangerous something as simple as driving can be in places where bombs indiscriminately maim and kill. It's not his job as chief engineer for unmanned systems at Oshkosh Corp. to convince them. He simply shows them how it works.
"It's not to replace the war fighter at all. It's to augment them and give them the ability to do more with less and save lives," Beck said in a recent phone interview.
Oshkosh Corp. is designing a kit to add to existing military vehicles that allows someone in another truck in the convoy to remotely operate it by electronically controlling steering, brakes and transmission, as well as tire inflation. Vehicles can be programmed to travel at a specific distance or time interval between others in a convoy.
Sensors on the vehicle allow it to see 360 degrees. Lidar, a technology that measures distances by illuminating targets with lasers and analyzing the reflected light, is paired with radar on each driverless vehicle.
Lidar, Beck explained, gives a highly detailed picture of what's around the vehicle. Radar is nowhere near as accurate as Lidar but is good at detecting moving obstacles like other vehicles and pedestrians.
And radar also sees through dust, a critical issue since dust is almost always a factor in military convoys, especially in deserts. Without radar the dust kicked up by vehicles would be sensed as a wall of obstacles.
The technology is similar to Google's attempt to engineer driverless cars, but with a major difference: Google isn't trying to remove people from cars but rather allow them to do other things while the car drives itself. Oshkosh Corp.'s project for the Pentagon is to remove everyone from the military vehicle, so if the convoy is attacked no one is hurt or killed.
A service member riding in another vehicle in the convoy will control up to five unmanned vehicles. It's not like they're actually driving each truck with a joy stick, though. Instead the trucks will drive themselves but alert the human controller if there's a problem such as an unknown obstacle. The soldier will use a camera to see what's wrong and make adjustments.
Oshkosh Corp. is working with the U.S. Office of Naval Research to produce an unmanned vehicle for the Marines to use on supply missions. The truck manufacturer unveiled some of its autonomous vehicle technology at a trade show in May.
"Every time we've introduced this to combat logistics and patrol folks who have run convoys in theater, they always go, 'This is the stupidest thing we've ever heard of. We can do it better,'" said Beck.
"But when they touch and feel the technology and get in the truck and use it, they're like, 'This is awesome, gotta have it today.'"
Pomroy can't imagine a robot truck ever heading out on a military convoy. There are just too many things that can go wrong in a combat zone, and the terrain is so unpredictable. In Iraq, Pomroy drove countless miles in large, heavy vehicles designed to find bombs and other explosive devices.
"Going through villages, especially at night, you never knew when a kid was going to run out in front of you," Pomroy said.
Staff Sgt. Anthony Fiecke, 33, who served in Iraq in 2003-'04 when vehicles didn't have much armor for protection, spent much of his time traveling in Humvees, dump trucks, wreckers and light-medium tactical vehicles. Unmanned vehicles could save lives, said Fiecke, though he wondered what will happen if the computer gets confused.
"They make computers pretty smart these days. But there's human intuition a computer might not pick up on," Fiecke said Saturday after working on his squad's heavy equipment in the motor pool.
"If you look at drones, that's taking a lot of pilots out of the air. But there's still someone on the ground controlling them," Fiecke said.
Fiecke pointed out another benefit to unmanned vehicles, something engineers and designers didn't consider: Every time he returned from a mission, the Humvee was filled with empty soda cans, candy wrappers, shell casings, Gatorade bottles partially filled with chewing tobacco and spit, and other detritus.
Without a driver, there's no garbage left behind in the vehicle.