Google has received tons of gushy press for its bubble-shaped self-driving car, although it’s still years from the showroom floor. But for years, John Deere has been selling tractors that practically drive themselves for use on farms in America’s heartland, where there are few pesky pedestrians or federal rules to get in the way, Washington Post reports. For a glimpse at the future, meet Jason Poole, a 34-year-old crop consultant from Kansas. After a long day of meetings this month and driving five hours across the state to watch his little girl’s softball game, he was still able to run his John Deere tractor until 2 a.m., thanks to technology that left most of the driving to a computer.
The land is hilly on Poole’s family farm, so he drives the first curved row manually and handles the turns himself to teach the layout to his tractor’s guidance system. But after that, he takes his hands off the steering wheel and allows the tractor to finish. “We kind of laugh when we see news stories about self-driving cars, because we’ve had that for years,” Poole said. The advancements being rolled out on the farm could soon show up next door: Your neighbor can already replace his lawn mower with the John Deere equivalent of a Roomba robotic vacuum for his yard.
The self-driving technology being sold by John Deere and some of its competitors is less technically complex than the fully driverless cars that big tech companies and car manufacturers are working on. For now, the tractors are still supposed to have a driver behind the wheel – even if they never touch it. They’ve already started to transform farming in America and abroad: John Deere is selling auto-steering and other self-guidance tech in more than 100 countries, said Cory Reed, vice president of the company’s Intelligent Solutions Group.
The systems come with their own risks, including concerns that they could be hacked. But because farm-equipment makers operate almost exclusively on private land, they’ve been able to bring products to market much more quickly than consumer automakers – and without the same level of regulatory scrutiny. There are no federal rules specifically addressing self-driving tech for tractors, largely because farm equipment is designed for use in fields where it doesn’t pose the same level of risk to other vehicles or people as a self-driving vehicle on a public road. The closest thing to national regulations are safety standards set by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, but the agency does not have any rules directly aimed at self-driving technology.
That lack of regulations is one reason that the future reached the farm first. But another is pure necessity: There’s a labor crunch in rural America – young people move to the cities, leaving the average age of U.S. farmers at 58, according to the Agriculture Department. Similar forces are pushing self-driving tech into other industrial sectors at a pace that outstrips the consumer market. Earlier this year, the first self-driving semi-truck licensed to drive on public roads in the United States made its debut in Nevada with a splashy press show. Self-driving trucks are being rolled out for mining and oil operations in remote parts of the world.
The success of self-driving technology in agriculture could serve as a guidepost for carmakers who are trying to figure out how to move similar technologies onto U.S. streets. Tractor makers started exploring the possibility of putting software in the driver’s seat decades ago. At first, they used satellite technology to help farmers plot courses they could drive manually. About 15 years ago, John Deere started using similar systems to guide the tractors automatically, Reed said.
Crops are generally planted in one long row after another – and farmers want to make sure they use up all their land. Before auto-steering, that often meant a few feet would get reworked in every row. But with modern technology, that overlap can be reduced to less than an inch so it takes fewer passes to cover each field – saving farmers time and money.
John Deere’s main competitor, Case IH, markets similar systems, as do lesser-known companies. Some are going even further than modifying existing tractor designs: The aptly named Autonomous Tractor Corp. designed a fully autonomous tractor prototype that looks like a golden, boxy tank, but without a seat for a driver.
The systems are pricey: Outfitting a new tractor with top-of-the-line auto-steering, navigation and guidance tech could cost upward of $20,000, Reed said. There are also activation and subscription fees if farmers want to use the company’s satellite or radio signals. There are risks to reliance on software. Poole said one neighbor using self-driving technology downloaded a software update that disabled his tractor for a week in the middle of planting season this spring. If a system is working, farmers will often hold off on updates rather than risk complications, he said.
Those gaps could raise added cybersecurity risks. John Deere takes this issue seriously, Reed said, and encrypts its systems to protect them from hackers. Still, issues such as digital security fears, along with more traditional physical safety concerns, make it hard for consumer automakers to get their self-driving vehicles past various regulators and on to public roads. But tractor makers have shown that much of the technology needed to fulfill the promise of autonomous vehicles is here.
“All of the things we’re doing on the farm will find their way into the consumer market in the coming years,” Reed said.