Self-Driving EVs Have Arrived… At Least For The Farm

Food & Drink

The US and other countries have been actively promoting vehicle electrification as a “decarbonization strategy” for the transportation sector. There has also been much discussion and experimentation with self-driving automobiles. Agriculture is poised to be the first sector to combine those two technologies in the form of self-driving EV tractors. A company called Monarch Tractor has started selling electric powered, “driver optional” tractors designed for use in vineyards, orchards and dairy farms. After years of technological development, the first units started coming off the line at its Livermore, CA manufacturing facility. The first customer, Constellation Brands
, bought 6 of these MK-V tractors. Monarch raised $110M of investment including a $61M Series B Round and has secured strategic partnerships with CNH Industrial
and V.S.T. Tillers Tractors. They have also signed a contract manufacturing agreement with Foxconn to build the MK-V and its battery packs at its Ohio facility.

There are several reasons why this technology makes sense for farms. First, it is becoming increasingly difficult to hire tractor operators. That job has been described in terms of the three “Ds” – “dirty, dull and dangerous.”

Even at $30/hour there are not many people interested in long hours of driving up and down the rows to do the mowing, dusting, spraying, and other needed horticultural operations. It can be hot and dusty work, and since these relatively small tractors don’t have the enclosed cabs that are typical for the large equipment used for row crops, the drivers may need to wear protective gear that is uncomfortable on hot days. With this new tractor technology, an operator sitting in a comfortable room with the user-friendly interface can oversee 4 or even 8 tractors. Each unit is programmed and GPS guided to navigate the layout of the specific property on which it is being deployed. They are also equipped with 360 degree cameras in order to report any issues back to their tender. The tractors use advanced autonomous and robotic hardware and the NVIDIA

Jetson edge AI platform allowing either driver-assisted or driver-optional operations. The tractors also have data ports for various sensors so that they can be collecting location-specific data in support of the farmer’s need to comply with traceability and sustainability information for various certifications or ESG goals. It should be much easier to find people willing to take on the role of overseeing these units.

The MK-V also address several environmental issues. They are not burning diesel fuel and thus avoid those tailpipe emissions. They have a lower overall carbon footprint and that is even a more dramatic benefit for farms that have solar installations. The tractors have significant horsepower (40 continuous, 70 peak) and so they can pull various implements and/or navigate sloped land. They are narrow enough to negotiate even 6 foot rows and otherwise minimize soil compaction near the roots in the tree/vine row. They can be used in the dark. The battery can be re-charged in 5-6 hours with a level-2 charger, and those batteries can also be used to power other operations at a winery or can act as a micro-grid in the case of power outages.

The tractors also have very attractive economics. In California they qualify for the state EV credit, and between that and the diesel savings they pay for themselves in less than a year. The MK-Vs come with an eight year warranty.

Monarch’s Chief Farming Officer, Carlo Mondavi (see image above), comes from a famous wine grape industry family, and that was the perspective from which he recognized the grower’s need for this kind of solution. The grape industry has historically been a starting point for the introduction of new technologies. There is also a good fit with many tree-fruit crops that are moving towards higher density plantings. Berry, vegetable, and tree nut growers are also showing interest in the technology. It also turns out that these tractors are an excellent fit for the task of “feed pushing” in a dairy operation because that is a 24/7 task.

So with this innovation from Monarch, specialty crop agriculture is beginning to move ahead with electrification and “smart tractors” and will be upgrading an important but previously less than desirable job.

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