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Fully Autonomous Vehicles Are Coming

Are you ready to let go?

Learning to drive is a rite of passage. Hands carefully positioned at 10 and 2, remember how it was both exciting and terrifying as you took the wheel for the first time? If you were a farm kid, chances are that first drive was in the seat of a tractor.

“The tractor definitely came first for me,” recalls Illinois farmer Doug Elliott. “It was a small IH Cub Lo-Boy used to mow ditches and pastures. When I was about 10 years old, my dad told me to drive it down to my uncle’s house, which was about 3 miles away. I had a death grip on that steering wheel the entire way.”

Aiming to increase efficiency, Elliott later relinquished this important skill to a computer. “There is so much going on in the field that I have to pay attention to,” he says. “Having auto steer reduces the stress level dramatically because I can focus on other things. It also allows me to run many more hours in a day.”

It’s now estimated around 52% of farmers utilize some form of auto steer with projections of 64% by 2018. Yet, trusting that critical job of steering to technology doesn’t happen overnight. “Even though farmers still sit in the cab, it takes a number of years to feel comfortable in letting go of the steering wheel,” says Phil Jennings, Kinze Manufacturing service manager. 

While driving hands-free is one thing, are you willing to get out of the moving cab? 

“It is going to take even more time to ensure that farmers are comfortable and confident with fully autonomous technology and stepping out of the cab completely,” notes Jennings.

“Systems like auto steer have been very successful, because they enable you to do a better job and increase productivity,” says Stewart Moorehead, robotics systems manager at the John Deere Technology Innovation Center. “However, you are still required to be in the vehicle to handle situations like trash buildup on a tillage implement or a mechanical failure an automated system currently cannot detect.”

Creating a system that can identify and react to many different and unpredictable situations is one of the challenges with autonomous technology in ag. 

“People are very good at detecting and responding to events,” says Moorehead. “Robots need to get better.”

thinking outside the cab

Known for its grain carts and planters, Iowa-based Kinze unveiled its Autonomy Project in the summer of 2011. Designed to reduce the need for skilled labor by taking the human element out of the cab, the project marries three existing technologies: GPS, automation, and sensing.

With a multiyear plan in place, each step along the path has meant improvements that resolve the roadblocks to adoption. 

“The first system we unveiled was a single tractor and grain cart being controlled from the combine,” Jennings says. “A number of our customers needed two grain carts in the same field at the same time. We are now able to run multiple grain carts from a single combine.”

The system can also keep tabs on all vehicles in the field so the autonomous grain cart takes the safest and most efficient route to the combine. Side radar sensors allow it to see obstacles approaching from the left or right and to maneuver safely down narrow corridors.

However, as Todd Janzen of Janzen Agricultural Law LLC, points out, “Farm machinery must operate not only in the field but also on public roads.” 

The rise of self-driving cars, he believes, will address the on-the-road issues and will be a big benefit for agriculture. “Companies like Google and Tesla could easily license their self-driving car software to ag equipment manufacturers,” Janzen says.

obstacles to overcome

If predictions of a 2013 ENO Center for Transportation study are correct, a fully autonomous vehicle will be available to the public by 2025. The study also forecasts that when 90% of cars are autonomous, there will be more than 4 million fewer crashes each year and 21,700 lives saved. Currently, there are about 5.5 million crashes with more than 30,000 fatalities annually.

While fully autonomous vehicles have the potential to dramatically change how the world moves, including agriculture, designing an autonomous vehicle that can perform safely in nearly every situation is a challenge. 

“A set of accepted protocols and standards for self-piloting vehicles is needed so they can talk to each other in order to avoid collisions and other mishaps,” says Eric Volkman, who is a contributor to TU-Automotive Detroit. “Perhaps most challenging of all is the almost complete lack of a regulatory framework for autonomous driving. In fact, one recent institutional development in an influential California market has seemed to throw up a big roadblock for self-piloting cars by issuing draft regulations.”

For agriculture, Janzen believes the ease of adoption will depend on who the law says is liable when something goes wrong. “If the tractor leaves the field and hits a car on the highway, will the farmer who owns the tractor be liable? Or will the manufacturer who developed the software be liable?” he asks.

Another critical factor is price. The current estimate for an autonomous vehicle is around $100,000, which isn’t feasible for most Americans. To date, Kinze has not yet released a price for its autonomous system.

As beta testers of Kinze’s system, Elliott says his family would love to have it on their farm but, “It depends on the price.”

easing you out of the driver’s seat

As both industries work to overcome the complex questions this type of technology raises, companies like Ford and Autonomous Tractor Corporation (ATC) have developed strategies to ease consumers into the idea.

“Functions like lane-keeping assist and active park assist are already helping to pave the way for consumers to get comfortable with fully autonomous technology,” says Molly Vorwerck, Ford Motor Company.

Autonomous vehicles are a key pillar of the company’s Smart Mobility plan, and it intends to triple its fleet in 2016. “With nearly 30 autonomous Fusion Hybrids, Ford will have the largest fully autonomous testing fleet of any automaker,” Vorwerck says.

For ATC, taking control away in small pieces means developing and releasing technology incrementally so you can get comfortable with the various capabilities you’re giving up.

“You don’t want to be thrown out of the tractor cab,” says president and CEO Kraig Schulz. “You want to be eased out.”

However, it wasn’t the firm’s original tact. About four years ago, the Minnesota-based company developed three prototypes of a cabless, boxy tractor.

 “If there is no cab, it’s a little too much for farmers right now because they still have to get it from field to field. They can’t do that autonomously,” he says. “When farmers do leave the cab, there are four functions that have to be replaced: navigation, safety, implement control, and their knowledge.”

ATC’s eDrive and AutoDrive retrofit kits have the ability to handle them all. 

eDrive, which is a retro-
fit kit that began shipping earlier this year, is a diesel-electric drivetrain that replaces the transmission, differential, and axles with four electric wheel motors.

“There are essentially two components to the tractor after eDrive is installed – a diesel generator set and the wheel motors,” says Schulz.

Either can be swapped out in less than two hours with basic equipment found on any farm, he adds. 

“eDrive tractors are 25% more fuel efficient than traditional tractors and are significantly easier to maintain and repair because they’re rated for 25,000 hours of service life,” says Schulz. “You can expect to save around 50% in total ownership costs with a payback period of about four years.”

If a machine is going to be fully autonomous, he says it has to have an electric platform. “Companies like Tesla and Google are using an electric platform in their autonomous vehicles,” explains Schulz. “It is the only way to sense and control a machine well enough.” eDrive will cost about $500 per horsepower installed. It will be available in 100, 200, and 400 hp. through distributors.

AutoDrive offers highly precise, repeatable accuracy. “It addresses the issues you face with GPS-based units. The GPS RTK that you use today is not and never will be an autonomous navigation system. It simply is not accurate or reliable enough,” he says. 

The system relies on ATC’s proprietary laser-radio navigation system (LRNS) for subinch positioning data and FieldSmart artificial intelligence software that allows you to train the tractor without programming. 

Sonar systems, which have a range of 50 to 60 feet, provide full perimeter safety. Pan-tilt cameras communicate via cellular so you can monitor progress and resolve issues remotely.

ATC plans to release AutoDrive in the next 12 to 24 months. 

“The timing of its release will be dependent upon how fast farmers become comfortable with it,” says Schulz.

Human, Machine Work In Harmony

The spotlight so far has been on the technology that will deliver self-driving machines. However, humans are the vital factor in transitioning through the stages of autonomy.  

“The relationship between humans and machines has evolved over time,” says Bryan Reimer, a research scientist with MIT. “From a sensing perspective, we’ve come a long way in the last 10 to 15 years in our ability to sense the environment around us.” Our ability to understand how we interact with these technologies is lagging, though. “We can sense where a vehicle is on the road. We can sense where a piece of farm equipment is in the field,” notes Reimer.

“Our ability as humans to interact with these sensing technologies and very complex computational systems is somewhat limited, however.”

As the push toward full autonomy moves forward, drivers will need to be taught how to handle highly automated systems much like pilots have been taught to fly airplanes. “Pilots, over time, have learned the skill of supervising automation,” he says. “They have been repeatedly trained to take control if an issue arises.”

Consumers, on the other hand, don’t have such experiences. “They don’t have licenses that require them to go back for continuous training to understand the different modes of operation,” Reimer says. “Whether it’s farm equipment or an automobile, there is a very big disconnect coming in our ability to work with these advanced technologies.”

However, he believes agriculture is better positioned to handle this transition of control.

“The ag industry is very similar to aviation,” he says. “What links those two together is the ability to train, influence, and regulate the utilizer of the technology. Agriculture has the ability to ensure that operators are educated on highly technological devices and understand the technology’s limitations. In the consumer space, there is no fundamental infrastructure to make that happen.”

As the push for fully autonomous technology continues, Reimer poses several critical questions. “How do we develop that trust we don’t have today? How do we change the legal climate to promote the technological training across a lifespan? How do we change the dealer’s relationship with the consumer from one who hands over the keys to one who provides an educational experience? The dealer will really be the only remaining touchpoint between an audience who should be skilled with the capabilities of the system,” says Reimer. “It will all come, but it will take time.”

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