In an entertaining beat-down of the folks behind the current administration’s love-affair with electric vehicles (EV), The Wall Street Journal’s Andy Kessler opined recently “subsidies for EVs are a huge mistake.” His column is about road traffic, and after a long run around Robin Hood’s Barn (bear with me here) it has some interesting applications to automated farm equipment.

He suggests in his Nov. 12 Inside View, the government should have, instead, put the money into electronically upgrading the nation’s road system and the intelligence of automobiles instead of, as he terms it, “providing a giveaway to the already well-off” – the folks who can afford to be early adopters of EVs.

Kessler bases his premise on calculations that over the life cycle of a typical EV, its overall emissions are about 30% less than those of a comparable-size and design vehicle equipped with an internal combustion engine. He cites billions of dollars lost by Ford recently on EV production, and the glut of battery-powered vehicles on GM and Stellantis factory and dealership lots, as evidence that government subsidies have about run their course in luring a cross-section of Americans to replace vehicles powered by gasoline and diesel fuel with battery power – given current EV battery technology.

Kessler cites a Silicon Valley rule-of-thumb that “transformational” is a word reserved only for concepts and designs that are 10 times better than existing technology, explaining the 30% emission advantage EVs boast just isn’t transformational particularly at their significantly higher purchase price.

The columnist who regularly writes about the intersection of culture and technology says the federal EV subsidy dollars would have better been spent on upgrading roads and highways to encourage the adoption of autonomous vehicles – rather than on technology he says is conceptually the same as the “battery and motor of fourth-grade science fair projects.”

Citing 2022’s 40,795 traffic fatalities in the U.S., Kessler says the Value of Statistical Life tables used by the Department of Transportation calculate each traffic death at a cost to the nation’s economy of $12.5 million dollars. Or $400 billion every year if U.S. crash fatalities could be reduced to 10,000 per year – something he says autonomous technology can address through reduced driver error, the cause of many fatal accidents. Also, he says a dependable autonomous vehicle fleet could reduce the need for roughly half of the nation’s 600 million vehicles, as many urban consumers could shift to ride-share instead of owning personal cars.

Autonomous vehicles obviously aren’t ready for prime time now either with driverless California taxis balking in construction sites while others are not able to recognize common stop signs. Still, Kessler says studies show autonomous vehicle use results in 95% fewer injuries and 70% less property damage than their human-driver counterparts – a good sign for investment in the technology.

Instead of using taxpayer dollars to subsidize folks who already have the means to purchase the much more expensive EV, Kessler suggests the government should instead invest in improving on-board sensors for autonomous vehicles to enable them to better recognize traffic signs, construction cones and other travel impediments, such as pedestrians. Stop signs could broadcast their presence, and stop lights could signal red, yellow and green conditions digitally, eliminating the need for visual recognition.

That would truly be transformational, and the lives and economic costs of fatalities could be addressed far better than handing out money to create an artificial demand for an unpopular product.

What Does This Have to Do with Farm Equipment?

While the government isn’t handing out tax-incentives and rebates to purchase conventionally-powered autonomous farm equipment burning diesel fuel, agriculture has severe labor shortages that will ultimately be filled with so-called Level 4 and Level 5 autonomy – tools that take themselves to the field and do their assigned duty without human intervention.

Still, farmers are hesitant, with their biggest concerns being liability and safety of operating fully autonomous equipment and overall dependability and durability of robotic equipment. The 2022 Autonomous Farm Equipment: U.S. Farm Adoption & Outlook report in Ag Equipment Intelligence, cited concerns for digital signal reliability in rural areas and a desire to “oversee” such equipment during critical crop production chores such as planting – a time when demanding absolute operational accuracy is needed for a successful crop.

  • Rather than only handing out cash, policy makers at all levels of government need to address liability issues to provide growers an overall uniform framework of legal parameters for any mishaps arising from the use of autonomous farm equipment. Such legislative action would pave the way for more efficient – some say transformational – agricultural practices for food and fiber production. Some of the footwork for this concept was established in Australia in 2008 with a “Code of Practice” for autonomous trucks working in open-pit mines. The “Code” is not law but is a guide for safety and health requirements under Western Australian legislation, and can be admitted in court as evidence of what is known about risk management methods. In 2019, the Global Mining Guidelines Group issued a similar set of recommendations using the Australian code as a model.
  • Equipment makers can speed the adoption of autonomous equipment on farms by addressing the dependability and safety issues that concern growers. Like their counterparts on public roadways, autonomous farm tools need better sensors, namely LIDAR (Laser Imaging Detection and Ranging) to better recognize obstacles in the fields – such as livestock, vehicles and ultimately humans — regardless of their authorization to be in the field. Also, autonomous vehicles need more “situational awareness” in the form of machine learning (artificial intelligence) and localized mapping to recognize when they are operating near roadways, riparian or watershed boundaries and populated areas. These machine “senses” need to be carried on-board and capable of direct engagement with obstacles and boundaries – something that GPS tracking cannot always adequately address.
  • The other factor governments can address is signal reliability in rural areas. While broadband wireless coverage continues to improve across the U.S., nearly 30% of the nation’s farmland still lacks adequate service for dependable Level 4 and 5 autonomous equipment operation. The spotty coverage begs the cooperative attention of government entities and digital network providers as a priority to ensure U.S. agriculture remains at its peak productivity.

Agriculture’s increased productivity rates easily bump the “transformational” category over the past half century. A few tweaks from regulators, lawmakers and equipment makers can ensure that performance continues.

For more info on electrification in ag equipment, check out Ag Equipment Intelligence's custom research report, Alternatives to Fossil Fuels in Farm Machinery: Overview & Outlook Through 2027.

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