Autonomous Vehicles

John Deere thinks its self-driving tractor can help feed the world

But scale remains far away—the company plans to rent 10-50 units of the tractor this year, and to double that in 2023.
article cover

Illustration: Dianna “Mick” McDougall, Photo: John Deere

· 4 min read

Fully driverless vehicles may still be years away from hitting a street near you, but how about your local farm?

John Deere unveiled its first fully autonomous tractor at CES on Tuesday. While self-driving tractors have been running on farms for at least a decade, the new 8R tractor takes things a step further, allowing farmers to leave the cab and control the machine remotely.

The world’s population is rising, and that means food production needs to increase rapidly. At the same time, the people who grow that food are aging—the average farmer in the US is older than 55—and having difficulty finding skilled agricultural workers. John Deere says automation is the answer, but that solution comes with more costs for farmers and it has not yet been proven at scale.

“Now we’re layering in autonomy, so that the farmer is no longer tied to that machine all day, but can instead focus their attention on the jobs that require more expertise from them,” Deanna Kovar, vice president of production and precision ag production systems at John Deere, told Emerging Tech Brew.

The company has not released the price point for the tractor, but the existing 8R tractor and chisel plow for tilling sell for as much as $500,000, without autonomous features. For context, the annual cost of production for the average farm in the US was about $180,000 in 2020, according to the USDA.

The new autonomous 8R and chisel plow will be available for 10 to 50 farmers in the Upper Midwest to rent through select dealers when it rolls out in fall 2022. Kovar said the company hopes to at least double that number in fall 2023 and eventually switch to an ownership model.

How it works

The tractor uses machine learning to till the soil and can run 24 hours a day, only needing to stop every eight to 10 hours for refueling. Farmers track its progress and monitor any issues through an app, but don’t need to be in the cab or even in the field. Kovar told The Verge that once farmers get the tractor into position and set up, they can “swipe to farm.” The John Deere Operations Center Mobile platform allows them to view data, images, and live video.

“Not every farmer is going to have to buy a new tractor to make this work, either. This autonomous system will retrofit back on several years’ worth of John Deere tractors as well,” she said.

An image from inside the cab of John Deere's driverless tractor

John Deere

The new 8R is equipped with six pairs of stereo cameras that give the machine the ability for 360-degree obstacle detection. The company says the tractor uses a deep neural network, which has been trained on more than 50 million images from farms collected over the last three years, to guide the machine, but humans are on standby to help make decisions.

Keep up with the innovative tech transforming business

Tech Brew keeps business leaders up-to-date on the latest innovations, automation advances, policy shifts, and more, so they can make informed decisions about tech.

The 8R stops if it encounters something in the field that it doesn’t know how to navigate and sends images to John Deere’s “tele-operators” who manually check the situation and alert the farmer, if needed.

A farm has “fewer variables than an open road,” Willy Pell, senior director of autonomous systems at John Deere, said at the CES presentation. “When we encounter an anomalous object, we stop. We don’t have to worry about getting rear ended by another driver.”

In recent years, John Deere has been building its AI and robotics expertise. The company acquired Silicon Valley–based Bear Flag Robotics in August 2021 for $250 million (but the company says the 8R has been used by a small group of farmers since 2019 and doesn’t rely on technology from the startup).

In 2017, John Deere spent $305 million to buy Blue River Technology, a California startup that uses machine learning to identify crops and spray either pesticides or fertilizers.

As the company adds computing power to its equipment, some worry that farmers will have even less control over their machinery. John Deere has been criticized over the issue of right-to-repair—the ability for farmers to fix their own equipment rather than being required to take it into an authorized dealership.

Looking ahead…

In addition to tilling the soil, Kovar says John Deere aims to make planting seeds, applying fertilizers, and harvesting crops autonomous in the next decade.

But while the driving aspect may be simpler for a tractor on a farm than a car on the street, using technology to autonomously perform farming tasks brings a different level of complexity, Kovar told Emerging Tech Brew.

“The farmer’s not going to adopt autonomy if they don’t have confidence that the machine can do a better job—or as good of a job—without them,” she said.

Keep up with the innovative tech transforming business

Tech Brew keeps business leaders up-to-date on the latest innovations, automation advances, policy shifts, and more, so they can make informed decisions about tech.