Over the past week, news and video broke about a new DARPA initiative that looks like something out of a Michael Bay movie: the Reconfigurable Wheel Track (RWT) program that turns regular wheels into tracks and back again based on the terrain and challenges faced by whatever vehicle they’re mounted on. These wheels put on an impressive show, converting seamlessly from one function to the other, offering the best of both worlds when it comes to traveling by road or loose, off road terrain.
There’s no question that this technology looks cool, and in the interest of full disclosure, I’m no engineer, but my experiences in the automotive industry immediately make me wince any time I see a program like this rolled out to great acclaim. I don’t fault DARPA or the Carnegie Mellon University National Robotics Engineering Center (CMU NREC) that built these fancy new wheels for developing the tech — it may well find a valuable home in defense assets of the future — but in my mind, that future is further away than many seem to believe.
Before I joined the Marine Corps and after, I worked in varying capacities for Skip Barber Racing — an open-wheeled racing company that ran its own race series, as well as the largest racing school on the planet. Many special operators found their way into our open wheel or high performance street car classes on Uncle Sam’s dime, learning the finer points of car control during high speed driving, and still more successful racers now in places like Formula One and NASCAR once drove with our red, black and white logo on their fire suits.
During my time in the Corps, my brother also opened his own automotive repair and performance modification shop in Connecticut and although he’s certainly the gifted mechanic in the family, I’ve spent many a long night cobbling vehicles together. I’ve worked on crappy cars we just wanted to keep running, daily drivers with custom forced induction, and high-end race cars intended specifically for the track, and while I would hardly consider myself an expert in any of those realms, I’ve been honored to work alongside some incredible guys that truly were.
All of that experience, whether it was getting a customer’s car to finish the race or limping my dying Mustang across the country as a Private First Class, has taught me one thing: moving parts break.
Racing is, in many ways, like serving in the military. Mechanics and techs, the enlisted masses, work long hours in tough conditions to get and keep their cars running, while the commissioned corps of business types discuss and debate around conference room tables. Race weekends, then, are like field ops – two or three days of doing your worst to your equipment and seeing if it’ll hold up. Many races are won or lost not by the drivers, but by the techs before and during the race. When something breaks, a swarm of mechanics descend upon it, looking for timely solutions because pulling out of a race can mean financial life or death. A particularly spectacular failure of a component can even mean literal death for the driver.
On a deployment, the stakes are always “life or death,” and being able to traverse different types of terrain quickly is an imperative. However, just like every component we bolt to a race car, I never focus on what something CAN do when functioning properly, I think of what it will do when it inevitably breaks. Once again for emphasis: moving parts break.
A wheel is an exceptionally simple little gadget. Even when only roughly holding its shape, it’ll roll, and when balanced perfectly, a high-performance tire can keep you on a track your skill level has no business allowing. The only failure you need to mitigate against is the possibility of blowout, and we’ve done a good job of developing simple solutions to that threat over the years.
These new transformer-tires, on the other hand, are clearly complex and intricate systems comprised of dozens of moving parts. It’s important to remember that in a combat environment, it doesn’t matter how well something performs MOST of the time, what matters is what it can do that ONE time you ask the world of it. I’ve seen cars do things I didn’t think possible but even then, men driving them knew not to ask their car to do it twice.
Humvees have to do it twice. Hell, they may have to match those life or death feats on a daily basis and the tinier the moving parts you rely on for miracles are, the more often you’ll be let down. In combat zones, there’s no swarm of mechanics to descend upon your ride to try to make it work: there’s just you, relying on your gear to get you home.
I love new defense technology, and I’m inspired by the things DARPA produces, but there’s a big difference between a tech demonstrator (like we see above) and a functional technological asset.
Taking a wheel and adding a hundred moving parts and a zero to the price tag doesn’t make it better, it makes it complicated and expensive.
And neither of those adjectives come in handy in a firefight.
Learn more about the Reconfigurable Wheel Track (RWT) program (and others) in the video below:
Images courtesy of DARPA