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Self-driving vehicles could take hold on the farm.



Self-driving vehicles could take hold on the farm. The farm is expected to be the first place where fully autonomous vehicles will break through and profoundly affect every one of the 7.7 billion people on the planet. Subscribe to Electric Vehicle News Bitesize Podcast for FREE!

According to a McKinsey report, self-driving vehicles may not be on the road until 2030 at the earliest. But when it comes to vehicles on the farm, the same timetable is far from fast enough. Farmers need autonomy now, and they need autonomy on a large scale.

The need for autonomy on the farm isn’t for the sake of technological advancement alone. The need is born of the pressures farmers face today in their operations. Farmers have been embracing the most cutting-edge technologies in the market for as long as cultivating land has existed. They are always looking for an edge to contend with immense challenges to grow enough food to feed the growing world.

A special need to promote complete farm autonomy is the shortage of skilled agricultural labour. From 2019 to 2029 the overall employment of agricultural workers will grow by only 1%, which is lower than the average level of all occupations. In addition, when farmers need it most, there is often a shortage of available labour at the peak of the growing season. Most importantly, the average farmer’s age is 55 years old. As farmers grow older, working 18 hours a day to operate equipment is neither comfortable nor sustainable.

Autonomy is a key step in enabling farmers to strategically use their resources to grow enough food to feed the growing global population and create a more sustainable and profitable business.

To understand why autonomy is the solution to labour shortages, it is important to understand the key role that this ability will play on the farm, and—more broadly—why agricultural technology often leads other industries out of necessity. Passenger cars on the road need to be able to get from point A to point B safely. Agricultural equipment needs to be able to safely get from point A to point B, and at the same time complete countless complex agricultural tasks with high quality and precision. In addition, when the climatic conditions are best for planting and harvesting, the work must be done within a very narrow window of opportunity. If farmers miss their window period, they may miss a full year of return on crop investment.

By deploying self-driving tractors that work automatically—not only from point A to point B by themselves, but also for planting, preparation, and transportation operations within a few centimeters of accuracy—farmers will be able to focus on the most urgent tasks in their operations. Machines can handle things they don’t have the time or energy to do. By using real robotic agricultural vehicles, these vehicles can not only drive autonomously, but also perform agricultural work precisely on their own. Farmers have the opportunity to devote more attention to higher priority and more complex parts of the work. For example, farmers have limited harvest time and need to give priority to harvesting crops in that season. Farmers can focus on this while letting autonomous machines do other tasks, such as preparing the harvested land for the next year.

Autonomy also will improve farmers’ quality of life and ensure consistent quality of each job performed, without sacrificing an excess of their time or energy. Deploying autonomous machines will allow them to consider the big picture and new approaches to improve their business, from expanding their portfolio to incorporating more sustainable farming practices. The availability of full autonomy will give them more time back and allow them to thrive. For all these reasons, our customers have been telling us they need autonomy and expect John Deere to deliver it.

Automation is an essential means for farmers to scale feeding the world. Almost 690 million people were undernourished in 2019, close to 60 million more than in 2014. Hunger is on the rise leaving farmers to contend with more mouths to feed. By 2050, farmers need to have sustainably doubled the amount of food, fuel, and fibre needed for nearly 10 billion people in 2050.

Although the consensus is that roads are the first official frontier of self-driving vehicles, driven by clear use cases and requirements, the farm will be the first to achieve scale autonomy. If there is no autonomy on the road, the driver can still get from point A to point B. But without the autonomy of the farm, the risk we face is that farmers do not have the necessary tools and labour to deal with the special challenges they face to put food on the table of the world.

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