The Autonomous Tractor’s Time Has Come (But its Timing is Terrible)


Case IH made a big splash at the Farm Progress Show with its autonomous tractor. It looks like a normal tractor, with an enhanced cool factor, that’s been decapitated. That’s right, there’s no cab because there’s no operator.

To be clear, this is a concept tractor. It’s not currently for sale at dealerships.

That’s a good thing for manufacturers and sellers of farm machinery, which have experienced double digit annual sales declines since 2013. According to the Association of Equipment Manufacturers, four-wheel drive tractor sales are down 31 percent through the first half of 2016.

The Autonomous Tractor’s time has come, but the timing is terrible.

With Google getting weekly media attention for its driverless car and Tesla managing PR for its autonomous vehicle, the headless horseman of tractors was imminent. Look at how effectively Agriculture utilizes auto steer and GPS technology — and adoption of the technology was swift!

Using drones, water saving innovations, and biotech seed, our industry is quite innovative. Which is why I firmly believe driverless tractors are the future of food production.

Why autonomous farm machinery will happen

Automation always happens when it replaces hard human labor. Cutting, threshing, and separation were back-breaking tasks once done by hand; today we have combines. (Incidentally, that’s how it got its name — it “combined” those three tasks.)

Automation also happens when it increases efficiency (gas pumps), eliminates monotonous tasks (toll booths), and saves money for businesses (ATMs vs tellers).

Saving money isn’t part of the equation yet for autonomous tractors. But it someday will be. Speaking of money, here’s…

Why it’ll take decades before driverless tractors are everywhere

Agricultural super cycles like we just experienced come along about every 4 decades. During this recent boom, farmers spent heavily on equipment. It made sense, from a capital management standpoint, to modernize the fleet. It didn’t hurt at tax time either, to get some money off the books in exchange for new iron.

Now we’re in year three of decreasing farm income. Money for machinery upgrades isn’t there. And frankly, we could get by for years with the equipment we have and still be way ahead of agricultural development in most countries.

Another delay on the road to fields of driverless tractors: Age. Young people embrace technology faster than their elders. But Ag’s young people, facing break-even market conditions, won’t have money for fancy innovation. And their wealthier, older, farm neighbors don’t mind tractors you actually have to drive.

Agriculture is a business and businesses ReInvent to remain successful

The first tractor I operated was a Ford 3000 pulling a New Holland small baler and a flat bed wagon. The clutch was impossible to push down for an 8 year old boy, and the muffler sat immediately under the operator’s right foot, literally cooking your shoe. It was inefficient and difficult to operate. Point? Antique tractors belong in museums, as innovation in food production drives forward.

We’ll have autonomous tractors. But given the current state of Ag finance and demographics, we won’t have autonomous tractors soon.

Damian Mason is an Agriculturalist, farm owner, business person, and speaker. Find him at