Lockheed Martin's autonomous convoy vehicle. Photo: Lockheed Martin. 

On Jan. 30, The U.S. Army Tank-Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center, or TARDEC, and Lockheed Martin (LMT 1.71%), demonstrated a fully autonomous convoy vehicle capable of "navigating hazards and obstacles such as road intersections, oncoming traffic, stalled and passing vehicles, pedestrians, and traffic circles in both urban and rural test areas." In other words, vehicles are one stop closer to being driverless. Here's what you need to know.

Autonomous to the rescue
As of Jan. 31, there have been a reported 3,417 coalition military fatalities in Afghanistan, alone. Further, the cause behind more than 1,300 of those deaths was improvised explosive device, or IED, attacks. Moreover, these numbers don't take into account coalition forces injured in IED attacks -- which are exponentially higher. Clearly, IEDs are a problem, which is where autonomous vehicles come in.

Photo: Spc. David Marshall via Wikimedia Commons.

Troops are exposed to possible IED attacks in a number of different ways, including running supplies. As such, using autonomous vehicles likes Lockheed's could help eliminate injuries and deaths from missions. Plus, as DARPA reports, the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2001 states, "It shall be a goal of the Armed Forces to achieve the fielding of unmanned, remotely controlled technology such that ... by 2015, one-third of the operational ground combat vehicles are unmanned."

Autonomous and the future
Lockheed isn't the only company working on autonomous vehicles. Oshkosh (OSK 0.05%) built an unmanned ground vehicle, or UGV, called the TerraMax, which is capable of unmanned and remote-controlled operation, and of course, Google (GOOGL -1.23%) is working on autonomous vehicles, using a Toyota Motors Prius and an Audi TT.

More importantly, what all of this points to is the ability for vehicles to be driverless. For military applications, this is a logical is step. And as military applications -- like GPS and the Internet -- have a way of trickling into civilian use, this could affect transportation as a whole.

What to watch
For now, UGVs seem more suited for military purposes and, in fact, could save a number of lives. As such, Lockheed's successful Capabilities Advancement Demonstration is great news for the company and could end up being quite profitable. In addition, the ability for cars to be driverless could end up affecting civilian transportation -- although this seems to be less straightforward, as a number of people actually enjoy driving. Still, it's something investors should watch.