On a recent drive of the 2020 Jeep Gladiator, we learned that the company is developing the world’s first autonomous trail rig. Mules, based on the last-generation Jeep Wrangler JK, have been spotted out on trails with a human observer, but no steering wheel.
Jeep wouldn’t confirm to us this program, but our sources sent us an image from inside one of the test mules and told us Jeep wants to make trail riding accessible to everyone, and while other manufacturers are focused on autonomous street driving, Jeep is taking this technology beyond the highway and to the trail.
Referred to internally as the Jeep Autonicon, we are told that not only will your autonomous Jeep be able to pick you up and drive you to the trailhead, but it will also be able to navigate dirt roads, technical trails, and even major obstacles. Our understanding is that the autonomous Jeeps will have a database of tens of thousands of trails and camping areas and have special sensors that will allow the vehicle to know the terrain and coefficient of friction, using that info to select the right combination of t-case position, gear, lockers, sway bar, traction control, and just about any other setting without input from the driver.
These Jeeps have been tested in secret on such trails as the Rubicon, all over Moab, and even internationally. The profile of famous obstacles have been inputted to the computer as a baseline, and Jeep’s technology can adapt from there to changing trail conditions, allowing the Jeeps to traverse any trail in the database regardless of weather or trail degradation. Jeeps are also able to share updated trail information with each other through the cloud, so that the entire fleet has the latest information. A special “Hell Yeah” mode allows the Autonicon to traverse extreme terrain, such as water falls and boulder fields, without any assistance.
There is also a feature called “trail cruise”, where multiple Autonicons can be wirelessly linked together to run a trail at the same speed, removing the frustrations of long trail ride bottle necks caused by drivers of different skill levels. The traction system is said to be so good that Jeep’s goal is to prevent a vehicle from ever being stuck again, however a self-recovery mode will make sure the vehicle can get itself out of trouble as well.
Lastly, for those of you more interested in social media than driving over technical terrain, an app controlled by a smart watch will allow you to get out of the Jeep and walk alongside it as it traverses epic obstacles for an opportunity at that awesome selfie or viral video. With levels 1-5 of just how challenging of a line you want to watch it take, Jeep promises to make for some good shots, even while using the onboard cameras to record video from new perspectives. Just don’t expect the Jeep Autonicon to put anyone in danger, as safety is the top priority of the Jeep brand.
While we aren’t ready to give up our steering wheel any time soon, we can see this being a great way to include more people in the freeing lifestyle of off-roading. We expect the Autonicon to hit showrooms sometime toward the end of the decade before completely replacing the manned driver model a few years after that.