Driverless vehicles scale in farming

Fully autonomous vehicles may not hit the roads until 2030 at the earliest, according to a McKinsey report. But when it comes to vehicles on the farm, that same timeline is nowhere near soon enough. Farmers need autonomy now, and they need it at 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.

One particular need that is driving demand for full autonomy on the farm is the shortage of skilled labor in agriculture. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that overall employment of agricultural workers will grow only one percent from 2019-2029, slower than the average for all occupations. In addition, available labor during the peak times of the growing season is often lacking when farmers need it the most. On top of that, the average farmer is 55 years old, according to the USDA. As farmers age, working 18 hour days operating equipment is neither comfortable nor sustainable.

Autonomy is a critical step forward in enabling farmers to leverage their resources strategically to grow enough food to feed a growing global population and create more sustainable and profitable operations.

To grasp why autonomy is a solution to this labor shortage, it is important to understand the critical role this capability will play on the farm and—more broadly—why technology in agriculture has often been leagues ahead of other industries out of necessity. A passenger vehicle on the road needs to be able to get from point A to point B safely. Farm equipment needs to be able to get from point A to point B safely while completing a myriad of complex agricultural tasks with a high degree of quality and precision. In addition, the work must be accomplished in very narrow windows of opportunity when climate conditions are optimal for planting and harvesting. If farmers miss their window, they can miss an entire year’s return on investment in their crop.

By deploying a tractor that works autonomously—not just going from point A to point B by itself but conducting the planting, preparing, and transport operations within centimeters of accuracy—farmers will be able to focus on the most pressing tasks within their operation. The machine handles what they don’t have the time or labor to do. With access to truly robotic farming vehicles that not only drive themselves but also execute farming jobs entirely on their own with precision, farmers have the opportunity to devote greater attention to the higher-priority, more complex parts of their work. For example, farmers have a limited window to harvest and need to prioritize getting their crops out for that season. A farmer could focus on this while having an autonomous machine accomplish other work such as preparing already harvested land for the following 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. One U.S. farm feeds 166 people around the world every year– and that number will surely grow by 2050, by when farmers need to have sustainably doubled the amount of food, fuel, and fiber needed for nearly 10 billion people in 2050.

While popular opinion has pegged the road as the first official frontier for autonomous vehicles, my bet is that the farm will realize autonomy at scale first, driven by clear use cases and demands. Without autonomy on the road, drivers will still get from point A to point B. But without autonomy on the farm, we risk farmers not having the tools and labor necessary to keep up with the exceptional challenges they face to put food on the world’s tables.

The farm is poised to be the place where fully autonomous vehicles first break through to profoundly impact every one of the 7.7 billion people on the planet.

Jahmy Hindman is the chief technology officer for Deere & Co.