Modernisation Equations: On Automation, Digitalisation & Electrification of Vehicle Fleets
‘Science runs ahead of military and political affairs evolving new conditions, which institutions must adapt to.’
According to an NRMA report a global new energy vehicle transition has begun. A confluence of battery innovations, autonomous driving technology and public awareness of clean energy imperatives has conspired to trigger a switch in sentiment away from fossil fuel cars. Targets are already being set in some countries for zero emission vehicle zones by 2040. Car manufacturers are also planning for an electric future, having conceded the internal combustion engine will trend towards decline. This situation represents another emerging technology shift for futures planners to contemplate. So what are the implications of automotive technology disruption in context of Project Overlander, which recently delivered thousands of wheeled manually operated diesel vehicles? Firstly, it’s necessary to acknowledge the technology situation has changed in relation to electric vehicles and autonomy. Secondly, to recognise that commensurate with growing uptake of electric cars there could be increasing public pressure on Government to adopt green energy or low-emission vehicle fleets.
This pressure for eco-transition might occur sooner than expected, which precipitates early retirement of diesel mechanical driveline vehicles or a mid-life conversion to either all-electric or hybrid-electric drivelines.
Finally, the consequences of electric transport acquisition and early diesel fleet replacement or alternatively, a driveline upgrade would mean difficult cost-capability trade-off decisions for Army’s modernisation program. This situation could develop in the next ten to fifteen years, depending upon electric vehicle uptake internationally and domestically. But Hybrid-Electric Driveline upgrades may initially be a more cost-effective option than total fleet replacement or an expensive all-electric conversion. Hybrids use a fossil fuel powered engine coupled to a generator that charges an energy storage system. Electric motors then deliver tractive effort at the wheels or tracks, so hybrid drives are fuel efficient and have lower carbon emissions, as the engine is not mechanically coupled to the driveline. Each vehicle then becomes a mobile generator, which may pay significant dividends for a 5th Generation Army with a rising need for deployable electric power.
However, prematurely withdrawing Project Overlander vehicles from service or converting them to electric or hybrid drivelines should not be viewed as a lack of vision in relation to previous capability choices. The project has already delivered organisational dividends having replaced an obsolete diesel vehicle fleet in service since the 1980’s. Moreover, electric vehicle and autonomous driver technology for military logistics and combat vehicle purposes is only now showing potential as a viable proposition over the next decade. But all-electric propulsion technology still has limitations such as: operating range, deployable recharging and blast safety of batteries. However, electric vehicle performance is maturing quickly with higher capacity and lower weight batteries powering multiple variants, including safer sodium and solid-state batteries that promise even higher energy densities
Therefore, early withdrawal of diesel vehicles or driveline upgrades represent an opportunity to generate unprecedented land transport capability in context of three ‘proposed’ universal laws of modernisation: Electrification, Digitalisation and Automation.
The first law states that as production of fossil fuel power declines fuel costs will increase due to reduced supply (fuel scarcity as oil companies go out of business or diversify to new energy) and as electric energy systems proliferate operating costs will reduce. This law has implications in relation to current project cost-models in the outer years. The ripple effects might also go beyond land power applications that use fossil fuel energy sources and could have consequences for maritime and aviation projects. Thorough economic forecast modelling is necessary to ascertain the potential magnitude of this economic change. So whilst there may be initial cost increases due to shortages of rare minerals needed for electric vehicles, it is expected that prices will stabilise as mining production increases with demand. However, running costs may still be low relative to fossil fuel vehicles.
The second law advocates that enterprise capability is directly proportional to the extent and pace of digital transformation. While digitisation of Army’s command and control network is well advanced under LAND 200, including connected vehicle fleets in an Internet of Military Things may produce greater productivity and situational awareness across the force. The third law proposes that efficiency gains will increase in parallel to autonomous conversion, while reducing risk to humans. Automated or self-driving car technology is maturing rapidly, so its application for military convoys and resupply missions is where the first automated change to logistics operations is already being tested. However, automation in relation to the application of force is another matter and might be the next step change.
Inspired by Newtonian physics, the modernisation laws can be expressed mathematically:
Automation – Manual = Efficiency (a - m = e)
Electrification x Digitalisation = Connectivity (ed = c)
Electrification + Automation = Sustainability (e + a = s)
Modernisation (x): (x = ecs) or the combined effects of efficiency, connectivity and sustainability variables are proposed as a broad measure of enterprise modernisation.
The suggested modernisation equation and laws are intended to illustrate key technology pillars required for a new energy iFleet of cyber secure, connected, self-driving vehicles. Leveraging these laws might realise leaps in land combat system capability given autonomous electric vehicles require less maintenance, need no fuel resupply and may stimulate new operating methods. A digitally connected iFleet could also be subject to fleet wide remote software updates similar to Tesla vehicles or by employing satellite linked Myriota monitoring devices. Additionally, the modernisation laws are universal as they are applicable to civilian and military technology renewal programs. Commercial organisations are already planning conversion to all-electric fleets, such as UPS who have ordered 125 Tesla electric trucks. The US Army is also contemplating electrification and automation of its brigades. Therefore, legacy fossil fuel, non-autonomous fleet operators risk being caught out with high operating costs when the transition starts to gather pace.
So this is just the beginning of an autonomous, new energy vehicle epoch that promises to transform the nature of terrestrial transport.
In light of this situation, what should be done? Whilst there are exceptions like Hawkei and Bushmaster protected vehicles, Army has in the past practiced a doctrine of emergence for major technology upgrades by acquiring low-risk off-the-shelf systems. However, a watch-and-shoot approach may require reassessment noting the pace of technology change we are witnessing.
Imagine in 20 years if society has transitioned to electric autonomous vehicles; Army may stand in stark contrast as a non-autonomous and carbon intensive operator that fails to meet community clean energy expectations, while fuel costs skyrocket if oil becomes scarce.
Worst case in a new energy autonomous future, Army could experience sustained public criticism for not acting sooner to retire its ‘high emission and non-autonomous’ legacy fleets of diesel, manually operated logistics and armoured vehicles. Increasing diesel fuel costs could occur as per the first law of modernisation when global oil production is reduced, as demand for fuel gradually declines or via international pressure to hasten the demise of fossil fuels (evidenced by New York City suing oil companies for contributing to climate change). Non-autonomous military vehicles may in the future also be viewed as a road hazard, given autonomous vehicles are expected to drastically reduce road accidents. Therefore, evolution to electric autonomous iFleets may actually be inevitable given a generational technology tsunami is already heading for our shores. However, Defence is yet to formally acknowledge this auto industry shift and plan for it. Thus tangible actions must soon occur to optimise variables of the modernisation equation, as the impending change may resonate well beyond land vehicle applications.
The views expressed in this article and subsequent comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.