Standing in front of a fully autonomous T8 tractor, New Holland’s vice-president, Bret Lieberman summed up what the company is telling its people in just two sentences at this year’s U.S. Farm Progress Show in Boone, Iowa. “This industry has evolved considerably over the last 100 years,” Lieberman said. “I don’t think that any of us can expect we’re going to be here 100 years from now if we don’t continue to evolve.”
And if his T8 tractor, or the fully robotic tractor at sister company Case IH’s display nearby were any indication, the next stage of evolution in the whole farm equipment industry will be more profound than anything we’ve experienced since the change from horses to gasoline-powered tractors.
While the Iowa show had an ample supply of more conventional introductions, it was clear that the 400-horsepower Magnum tractor at the Case IH display was what had show-goers talking. The reason was clear, because this tractor doesn’t even have an operator cab. There’s no driver’s seat.
The Magnum stopped farmers in their tracks, and it had crowds of onlookers around it from the time the show gates opened in the morning until they closed at the end of the day.
The Case IH version of an autonomous tractor involved exactly the same technology that was in Lieberman’s blue T8. In fact, it even came out of the same R&D program within CNH Industrial (parent company of NH and Case IH).
But unlike the off-the-shelf T8 NH tractor fitted with autonomous add-on systems, the Magnum was the image of a high-horsepower tractor built from the ground up to be run robotically.
The message is… get used to it.
“We think an autonomous vehicle with today’s farm conditions is a perfect match,” said Case IH’s vice-president, Jim Walker, as he stood in front of his futuristic-looking Magnum tractor. “At the show today we’re trying to get an idea from Midwest producers, what would they do with it? How would they like for us to fine-tune it? How would they like us to move forward? We’re ready to learn and we’re eager to get it into the marketplace as soon as we can.”
And just what kind of time frame does CNH Industrial have in mind when they talk about soon? The company’s CEO addressed that question at a meeting with financial analysts during the show.
“Our CEO gave a range of somewhere around three years and we’ll be ready for the market,” said Lieberman.
That means that for some “first-tier” producers who rely primarily on new machines and who cycle through them every couple of years, this year could be the last time they go shopping for tractors that need drivers.
The implications for farmers and for the machinery sector go much deeper than calculating how much the companies can save on glass for their windshields. They involve wholesale changes to the makeup of farm fleets — and beyond.
For example, farmers who now use a pair of 600-horsepower conventional tractors with 80-foot seed drills may choose to replace them with three autonomous 400-horsepower robots and the smaller implements they require.
Then again, because robots can work virtually continuously, growers may not even need to match horsepower on a one-to-one basis.
“You could have two, three or four of these autonomously working in the field while one operator supervises,” said Leo Bose, AFS marketing manager at Case IH. “We have four cameras, lidar technology as well as radar to work with a tablet interface or full-office computer. These are pre-programmed routes as well as pre-programmed tasks.”
That allows one supervisor to be inside several virtual cabs at once. According to brand executives, that multiplication of manpower is what has really driven the move to push autonomous system development.
“As I spend time in the field with dealers and customers, one of the common concerns about moving agriculture forward is labour, finding the people necessary to perform the tasks in the field,” said Lieberman. “Labour continues to be a concern for our customers. We believe that trend is going to continue, so we want to have that technology.”
As a journalist, however, when I tweeted out a picture of the robot Magnum, a reader replied that she thought farmers liked being in fields, and that being in the cab doing the work was actually an important part of deriving satisfaction from their profession. It seems she isn’t the only one in the Twitter universe to have that thought.
“We know that for our customers who are typically in the cab of the tractor, this is more than a job,” Lieberman continued. “Agriculture is a lifestyle. As we talk to farmers we can see the response to the technology, but we also see the response on the heartstrings as, wow, not being in the cab of the tractor! So it is an emotional thing when we demonstrate this change in technology.”
Yet although today’s machines still need a farmer in the cab, the truth is that current technology is doing more and more of the actual work. Going autonomous just means the few remaining tasks will get done automatically too.
“With PLM (New Holland’s Precision Land Management technology), it basically runs the tractor through most operations, and 90 per cent of the time the operator is just a passenger,” Lieberman said. “The autonomous package allows that to go completely autonomous.”
Motioning to the cabbed T8 behind him, he said, “This is the way I see it. This is the evolution. The PLM tools today can do a large portion of the tasks we’re talking about. With autonomy in the unit, this gets us to the next stage. Our vehicle concept here is a little bit different (than the cabless Magnum). You can see we have a cab on the tractor. This is a basic T8 tractor that has all the autonomous devices added to it.”
By making the autonomous technology an add-on feature to an off-the-shelf conventional tractor, robotics eases almost invisibly into equipment design. And Lieberman even discussed the potential of autonomous drive kits becoming retrofit options farmers can purchase and add to compatible tractors already in service.
“This technology is relatively simple to transfer from one vehicle to another,” he said. “Certainly we think there are (other) applications in smaller things like orchards and vineyards where you are in a more controlled environment and running at a slower pace and having simpler tasks like spraying.”
And autonomous tractors may see more initial interest from specialty growers in regions other than broad-acre farming for another reason: legal regulations allowing for a broad range of autonomous equipment operation.
“In the western provinces, we’re there pushing and asking for legislation,” said Walker. “In California they have legislation and they’ll be the early adopters.”
It’s hard to say whether making self-driving systems seem like just another option on familiar-looking tractors will soothe the uneasiness some farmers may experience when looking at a completely cabless tractor, especially those who value their seat time.
But it does provide manufacturers with another way to get producers back through dealership doors and interested in new machinery again, something that has been increasingly difficult for them to do recently. Not only has the lower Canadian dollar raised effective sticker prices, lower revenues have made those dollars harder to come by, and sales have been further reduced by a glut of used equipment fitted with almost as much technology as new machines.
As he neared the end of a presentation to members of the farm media gathered around him and his autonomous T8 tractor, Lieberman reiterated his belief that brands will have little choice but to move to autonomy.
“This is an evolving industry,” he said. “If we don’t evolve, we’re probably not going to be part of it.”