The move to electric accelerates

When you talk about electric drive for farm machinery, don’t say “if.” It’s “soon”

John Deere’s concept autonomous tractor is powered by electricity.

When General Motors chairman and CEO, Mary Bara, made her presentation to an online audience during the Consumer Electronics Show in January, what she had to reveal was worth listening to, to say the least. GM, an automotive brand that has been building vehicles with internal combustion engines for over 100 years, is committing to electric drive for its entire fleet by 2035.

After that, no more GM gas or diesel engines. Period.

From the brand’s “Thriftmaster” six-cylinder gas engines that were ubiquitous in the ’50s and ’60s right up to the Duramax diesels in current production trucks, they’ll all seem as obsolete as steam engines.

General Motors CEO Mary Bara announces the company will transition to an all-electric fleet by 2035. photo: GM

“We’re spending $27 billion on our electric and autonomous vehicle programs by 2025,” said Bara. “We feel confident this emphasis we’re placing on a more personalized driving experience will make our future EVs (electric vehicles) the most enjoyable and exciting vehicles we’ve ever made.”

While that announcement from GM was the clearest message yet from a major automaker about the pending end of its relationship with internal combustion engines, other brands seem to be on a similar trajectory.

Over at Ford, the Mach-E version of the venerable Mustang has debuted with electric drive, something that must have given muscle car purists apoplexy when they first heard the news. And an F-150 can now be bought as a true gas-electric hybrid.

It doesn’t stop there for the automotive industry. Just spend an evening watching TV and you’re bound to see electric vehicle ads from nearly all the major automotive brands.

Why? What’s behind the movement toward electric vehicles, given that global electric vehicle sales currently account for only about three per cent of the market? Plain and simple, the answer is emissions, just as Bara explained when stating the fundamental rationale behind GM’s decision.

“(It’s) a collective belief in the indisputable science behind climate change,” she said during her presentation. “(It’s) prompting companies to make unprecedented commitments to reducing carbon emissions. Investors were asking companies to put purpose alongside profits to unlock long-term value. At General Motors our vision for the future is a world with zero crashes, zero emissions and zero congestion.”

In plain language, that means investors want the brand to be better positioned to cash in on a not-too-distant future where automakers have one choice: go electric or go home.

Governments, particularly in Europe, have publicly stated their desire to abolish the internal combustion engine in new vehicles. Norway has talked about doing so by 2025. France has mused about doing the same by 2030; England by 2050, and so on. So far, however, there is no firm legislation in place to back that up — for now.

Approaching the issue from a different angle, the European Commission is floating a 2025 proposed implementation of Euro 7 emissions standards. Many in the industry say its permissible emissions levels are so unrealistic that it amounts to a “back door ban” on gasoline and diesel engines. It proposes tailpipe emission reductions of 60 to 90 per cent, according to published commentary. The German Engineering Federation, VDMA, spoke out strongly against it in a statement back in February, saying “The planned obligation that new vehicles in Europe must be practically emission-free from 2025 onwards would be an ecological, economic and technological aberration.”

But has anybody listened to them?

On this side of the Atlantic, things don’t look all that much different. With a new — arguably now rational — administration in place in the U.S., Canada’s environment minister has said our government intends to work jointly toward creating new environmental regulations that more closely harmonize with future American standards. No surprise there; our need to have comparable regulations in everything from emissions to corporate tax rates is something we’ve heard from our government for decades.

To try and catch up to Paris Climate Accord obligations, new tailpipe rules could accelerate the timeline for cutting auto emissions, which account for 26 per cent of Canada’s greenhouse gases. Banning internal combustion engines from new vehicles sold here possibly as early as 2040 is apparently on the table.

Construction equipment is seeing signs of electrification too. First announced in 2020, the Case IH 580 EV backhoe is powered by a proprietary 480-volt, 90-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack that can be charged by any 220-volt connection. It remains under development. photo: Case IH

Down south, California isn’t waiting around for U.S. federal regulations. It’s a state that has led the charge in reducing vehicle emissions for decades. Lawmakers there are proposing a total ban on gasoline vehicle engines by 2035. And here at home, Quebec is making similar noises about exactly the same rule.

Both Quebec and B.C. already require a proportion of new vehicles sold in those provinces to be emissions-free.

So what choice will automakers have, really?

The eventual need to produce reduced- or zero-emissions vehicles isn’t restricted to just the car builders. Heavy truck manufacturers are feeling the heat too; there have been many well publicized introductions of electric Class 8 highway trucks.

Tesla’s aptly named “Semi” may be the most recognized electric Class 8 truck to appear so far. It was revealed to the public in a splashy event in California in November 2017, and it boasts some impressive specifications — at least according to the company. Among other things it has a 0 to 60 m.p.h. time of 20 seconds when loaded to 80,000 pounds, which easily competes with any current diesel-powered rig. Tesla will offer 300- or 500-mile-range versions of the truck; and it’s accepting pre-orders for production models, which should be available later this year, although the Semi has faced production timeline delays already and it’s hard to say if Tesla will meet that deadline.

There are, however, already electric Class 8 trucks on the market. Paccar’s Kenworth T680E is an example, but the company isn’t nearly as boastful as Tesla about range capabilities, saying on a full charge the T680E is good for 150 miles, depending on conditions.

The off-road outlook

In the recent past, off-road diesel engine emissions regulations have lagged well behind on-road rules, but they’re here now. And they’re equally tough, so clearly equipment manufacturers have to have that in mind.

In agriculture, we keep hearing that the duty cycle of farm equipment is an insurmountable challenge for electric drives — at the moment, at least. But there are indications engineers are working on that, most notably with the Fendt e100 Vario tractor. It remains a concept machine, first shown to the public at Agritechnica 2017. But AGCO insists it has now moved much closer to production as the design has been improved upon, and it’s showing good performance in field trials.

“The Fendt e100 Vario has been a consistent hit in practical applications,” AGCO insists in a press update. “And the performance and versatility of the Fendt e100 Vario have been demonstrated in various field tests with conventional PTO-driven implements — like tedders, rakes, feed mixers — as well as hydraulically driven machines like sweepers or electrically driven salt spreaders for winter service work. The Fendt e100 Vario can be used with new electrified as well as existing attachments.”

The company hasn’t revealed what practical working time the tractor now has, but as batteries remain a focal point of R&D across e-vehicle sectors, ag is no exception. And the e100 has apparently tried a few.

E100: AGCO’s Fendt e100 Vario electric drive tractor remains a concept machine, but may soon be available for production. photo: AGCO Fendt

“In the course of this further development, various battery systems were investigated, undergoing intensive testing in various field and lab tests,” the company said. “With the all-new thermal management system, in just a few minutes you can preheat the battery to operating temperature in winter, and cool it in summer. Likewise, you can preheat or cool the cab.”

John Deere’s concept autonomous power unit unveiled at Agritechnica 2019 is another experiment in electric drive — among other technologies. Available specifications on its capabilities were a bit sparse, but it demonstrates that the green brand’s engineers have volts on their minds too.

For those who will — or may already have — an EV parked in their home garage, the ATV or UTV parked beside it for runs around the farmyard may soon need to share the electric vehicle charging station too.

In March BRP, the parent company of the Can-Am line of ATVs, UTVs, snowmobiles and the like, announced it was embarking on a five-year $300 million plan to add electric drive to its existing full product line by 2026. The Rotax modular electric power pack will replace at least some of the current Rotax gasoline engines that have lived under the hoods of BRP products for decades.

The company says the first electric drive product will be available within two years, with others following in quick succession.

“We have always said electrification was not a question of if, but when,” said Jose Boisjoli, BRP president and CEO.

That, it seems, is the new theme song for practically everyone making any machine powered by an internal combustion engine. And I can’t help but think debate is soon bound to turn to another environmental problem: energy, whether it’s petro-chemical or electrical, needs to come from somewhere. Are the world’s electrical grids up to the job of powering all those electric vehicles? 

About the author

Contributor

Scott Garvey

Scott Garvey is a freelance writer and video producer. He is also the former machinery editor for Country Guide.

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