Editor's Note: Todd Janzen, attorney at Janzen Agricultural Law in Indianapolis, grew up on a Kansas grain and livestock farm and now practices law at the intersection of ag and technology. Todd is chair of the American Bar Association’s Agricultural Management Committee and authors a blog addressing legal issues facing agriculture. You can see more posts from Todd at JanzenAgLaw.com.


Although Google’s autonomous car appears to be getting most of the press, the auto-guidance system on tractors, combines, sprayers and other farm equipment has been around for years.

Farmers still “pilot” their equipment today — sometimes pushing the “autopilot” button — but it does not take a crystal ball to predict that someday farm machinery will pilot itself around fields while farmers monitor such equipment remotely from a control room at the farm.

Are we ready for the liability issues that may bring?

The technology already exists to make autonomous tractors a reality. If you don’t believe me, check out this YouTube video of an autonomous John Deere tractor planting.

Likewise, Kinze Manufacturing has demoed an autonomous grain cart that delivers grain from the combine to waiting trucks without a pilot on board.

There are some obvious liability issues that come with self-driving farm equipment. Accident risks are huge. Google’s self-driving cars are tiny and probably would “bounce” off another car in a collision. But a new four-wheel drive tractor that runs out of control is not going to stop when it collides with vehicles, buildings, etc. In automated farming, there are concerns with people or objects being in fields where they normally would not be, such as children playing in field while watching a tractor work, or cattle getting loose in a hay field that is in the process of being cut. Would an autonomous machine stop for an unforeseen obstacle? 

The technology exists to minimize these risks, such as radar sensors that would “see” a cow grazing in the wrong field and GPS that might stop a tractor from leaving a field’s boundaries. For years cars have had accident avoidance technology, such as pre-application of the breaks when a collision appears eminent. Thus, for the most part, autonomous farming could already be reality. And since most farm accidents are caused by human error anyway, removing the human factor might actually decrease the risk of an accident.

But we have not yet embraced autonomous farming. Why?

Autonomous farming potentially shifts the liability for farm equipment accidents from the farmer to the equipment manufacturer. John Deere is not liable today when one of its tractors runs into an intersection because its operator fell asleep. But if the same accident occurred because the software malfunctioned and the machine failed to stop, liability would shift to John Deere. Legislation could alter or limit this liability, but I have not heard of any proposals to do so at this time.

It is foreseeable that accidents will result in the blame-game between equipment manufacturers and their customers. Manufacturers will blame the farmer for not calibrating or setting up the equipment properly, and the farmer will blame the manufacturer for a design flaw. Equipment manufacturers don’t want or need this problem. 

Another reason is emotional. Americans are in a love affair with their food right now. Consumers crave a greater connection between the dinner table and the farm. Taking the farmer out of the tractor seat reinforces the wrong stereotype — that farmers are removed from and don’t care about the land they tend.

Perhaps the question should not be when will we be ready for autonomous tractors, but when will Google build one?