Last winter I met with a group of university engineering students and their professor in a small garage behind a house in Regina. They were one of 15 such teams working on creating an autonomous tractor and planter to enter in the AgBOT Challenge in Indiana last May.
As it happened, they ended up winning the U.S.$50,000 first prize.
Contrast that small group of students working in a backyard garage trying to create a driverless tractor to this week’s announcement from Ford, in which the company committed to growing its Palo Alto, California, technology campus in order to put driverless vehicles on the road by 2021.
There have been other less definitive announcements in the ag equipment sector over the years, and I’ve been shown “secret” video footage by one of the major ag equipment brands of their driverless tractors working in a field. Also in a more public way, AGCO showed it’s Fendt brand two-tractors-one-driver concept vehicle at Agritechnica a few years ago.
All that makes me wonder, is there anyone not working on making driverless vehicles a reality?
But Ford’s announcement was unlike most others in the autonomy end of things. It was a definite statement with a firm timeline.
“The next decade will be defined by automation of the automobile, and we see autonomous vehicles as having as significant an impact on society as Ford’s moving assembly line did 100 years ago,” said Mark Fields, Ford president and CEO in the press release. “We’re dedicated to putting on the road an autonomous vehicle that can improve safety and solve social and environmental challenges for millions of people – not just those who can afford luxury vehicles.”
The announcement went on to put that into perspective.
“Autonomous vehicles in 2021 are part of Ford Smart Mobility, the company’s plan to be a leader in autonomous vehicles, as well as in connectivity, mobility, the customer experience, and data and analytics,” it read.
It continues: “This year, Ford will triple its autonomous vehicle test fleet to be the largest test fleet of any automaker—bringing the number to about 30 self-driving Fusion Hybrid sedans on the roads in California, Arizona and Michigan, with plans to triple it again next year.”
And the company isn’t kidding about the driverless part. They aren’t referring to something like Freightliner’s two prototype test trucks that have state authority to guide themselves down an Interstate in Arizona—or is it Nevada—with a driver sitting there just in case. They really mean driverless.
“Building on more than a decade of autonomous vehicle research and development, Ford’s first fully autonomous vehicle will be a Society of Automotive Engineers-rated level 4-capable vehicle without a steering wheel or gas and brake pedals. It is being specifically designed for commercial mobility services, such as ride sharing and ride hailing, and will be available in high volumes.”
High Volumes? So this isn’t just a matter of building one or two and saying, “See. We could if we wanted”, which is what has mainly taken place in the automotive and ag industry so far.
Aside from perhaps the trucking industry, Agriculture—I think—stands to see the most astonishing change in equipment technology in the not-to-distant future, as robots are getting set to run around doing field work all by themselves. The yet-to-come generation of farmers will likely spend little, if any, time in a tractor cab.
All that makes me wonder, how long will it be before gear heads like me who enjoy getting a little “diesel therapy” in a tractor cab or rolling down the road on a nice evening in a classic vehicle go extinct too?