Our most recent online poll asks how soon dealers expect autonomous vehicles to be commercially available, and the vast majority don’t expect we’ll be waiting very long.

Some 68% think self-driving vehicles in agriculture will be on the market in less than 5 years, but another 32% of respondents say it will be at least another decade before the technology is ready for prime time. Interestingly, not a single respondent to the poll chose “never” as an expected timeline for autonomous vehicles to be available in agriculture.

This would suggest confidence in engineers’ ability to solve lingering safety and liability concerns before high-horsepower tractors are allowed to roam farm fields without drivers. 

 But another one of the variables that could influence the introduction of autonomous vehicles is predictability. As noted by Kraig Schulz, president of the Autonomous Tractor Corp., at the 2017 Precision Farming Dealer Summit, automation works well for repetitive tasks, but farming is a non-repetitive, unpredictable activity. (Look for coverage of his session in the April/May issue of Farm Equipment).

“The conditions and requirements change every day,” Schulz says. “If a computer has to ‘learn’ all of the requirements under all of the different conditions in order to be self-sufficient, is it efficient for a producer to have to run back out to the field every 30 minutes and teach?”

Schulz sees electric machines or “semi-autonomy” as a more likely pathway to increased productivity, providing farmers with a “helping hand” in the field. But this route has its challenges as well. Perhaps the biggest being the battery requirements needed to sufficiently power a high-horsepower tractor.

I had a chance to see John Deere’s new electric tractor concept at the 2017 SIMA Agribusiness Show, featuring a battery designed to last for 3,100 charging cycles able to sustain about 174 horsepower (with a maximum output of 400 horsepower). The battery was about the size of a barracks footlocker, and holds a 4-hour charge, though it takes 3 hours for a full recharge.

Deere representatives at the SIMA show said the prototype tractor is at least 4-5 years away from commercial production. By that time, not only the size and lasting power of tractor batteries could be improved, but cost as well.

Sure, electric cars are navigating streets, but they require far less power than would a tillage or planting tractor and still aren’t cheap.

As Schulz noted, “Teslas today carry about 100 kilowatt hours of batteries, but even just a 200 horsepower electric tractor would need about 1,500 to work for a full day,” he says. “Batteries alone would cost farmers about $350,000 for this hypothetical electric tractor, not to mention the battery pack would also weigh more than the tractor.”