March 18, 2022

One of the articles on the inside of my newspaper this morning addressed the use of driverless vehicles.  Americans have been told for years that autonomous technology was improving and driverless vehicles were just around the corner.  Now the first fully automated vehicles are set to roll out by the end of the year.  These are not improvements to the current crop of driverless cars or even full sanction of the semi-trailer trucks that drive across the southwest.  The driverless age is coming to the farm.  This fall the John Deere factory in Waterloo, Iowa, is rolling out green 14-ton tractors that can plow day or night with no one sitting in the cab, or even watching.  The age of driverless farming is here.

When I looked online, I found the Society for Automotive Engineers (SAE) defines six levels of driving automation.  In Level 0, the automated system issues warnings and may momentarily intervene but has no sustained vehicle control.  Level 1 is “hands on”, where the driver and the automated system share control of the vehicle (cruise control or automatic emergency braking).  Level 2 is “hands off”, where the automated system takes full control of the vehicle, but the driver monitors and is prepared to intervene immediately.  Level 3 is “eyes off”, where the driver can safely turn their attention away from driving but must still be prepared to intervene when required.  Level 4 is “mind off”, where no driver attention is required for safety, but self-driving is only supported in limited areas (geofenced) or special circumstances.  Level 5 is “steering wheel optional”, where no human intervention is required at all.

It is no surprise driverless tractors are beating cars.  One problem faced by autonomous systems is humans doing foolish things in their path.  There are fewer obstacles (and humans) in a field to avoid.  If something unexpected present itself, the system is designed to stop until it is cleared.  Given that less than 2% of Americans work on farms and rural populations have dwindled for decades, the autonomous tractors are expected to help with chronic labor shortages.  The shift to more sophisticated tractors is part of a movement that emphasizes planting, fertilizing, and harvesting during narrow time windows when conditions are perfect.  A driverless tractor can work around the clock and complete the task before bad weather.  That could be worth thousands or tens of thousands of dollars every year.  CNH Industrial is developing driverless capabilities for its Case and New Holland tractors, and other companies are exploring smaller autonomous machines to handle other farm work.  Jobs are not lost if no one will do the work.

THOUGHTS:  There are 80 companies researching driverless capabilities on 1400 vehicles.  While fully autonomous vehicles are not available in the US, some cars already operate with minimal human assistance and others are expected to run without human drivers in the future.  Automobile accidents (with human drivers) are the leading cause of death among healthy people in the US.  Statistics show 40,000 people are killed in vehicle accidents every year and nearly 2.5 million are seriously hurt or permanently disabled.  Even with driverless vehicles there will be accidents resulting from human error.  In our litigious culture, who do you sue when a driverless car is in an accident?  Do the work.  Follow the science.  Change is coming and it starts with you.

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