Whenever I see one of those news reports on television about the struggle to invent self-driving cars, I have the same thought: What’s the big deal? I’ve had self-driving tractors on my farm for years.
In truth, I’m fully aware of the difference and the challenge. It’s one thing to work a field, where the only other traffic involves the occasional deer, and another thing to navigate a complex network of roads filled with cars and trucks as they stop, turn, brake, shift lanes, and leave their blinkers on.
After all, when I park my auto-steering tractor following a day with the crops, I have to get in my pickup and drive myself home. Robots can’t do it for me.
Yet I’ve seen the future on my farm—or, to put it another way, the future is already here in modern agriculture. Automated driving is making me a better farmer today. This technology holds the potential to make all of us better motorists tomorrow.
It can seem like a Hollywood fantasy. In the movies, we’ve watched the Batmobile drive itself. On television, we remember KITT, the black Trans Am that David Hasselhoff’s character commanded on “Knight Rider.”
Car companies have dreamed of self-driving cars for decades. Along the way, they’ve introduced features such as cruise control and automatic parking. Every conventional car manufacturer is now experimenting with bolder innovations. So are Tesla, Uber, and even Intel and Google. Last year, the Department of Transportation released regulations on automated vehicles.
We sense what’s going on here: a potential revolution in personal mobility. Our grandchildren may look back on today’s cars the way we look back on horses and buggies.
Yet much of the current conversation over self-driving cars has focused on the risks, including the fear that corporations will rush their products to market before they’re ready, endangering the lives of everyone. The government of India has even threatened a total ban.
The concerns are understandable, but we also need to think of the tremendous upside—and perhaps learn from the experiences of American farmers like me.
I’ve used self-driving tractors on my farm in Iowa for about ten years. The adjective really describes what these vehicles do: They drive themselves. Even so, I would not call them “driverless” because they really do require farmers. We still sit in the cabs, monitoring their activity, looking out for obstructions, and ready to take control.
One benefit of auto-steering tractors is reduced stress. The previous generation of tractors required constant attention as we drove them—a kind of never-ending vigilance that grinds you down as the hours go by. At the end of the day, you’re wiped out.
Self-driving tractors require awareness, but we can tend to other business as well. With these tools of modern agriculture, for instance, we can make calls and check commodity prices on our phones. It’s even okay to text and drive. Yet we can’t fall asleep—and the tractors make sure we don’t nap because they sound alarms as we approach the edges of fields.
The best benefit of self-driving tractors involves the fundamental business of agriculture. They allow me to plant seeds in precisely the right places, deliver fertilizer in exactly the right amounts, and use crop-protection sprays only when and where our plants need their help. I’m now growing more food on less land and with fewer resources.
Put simply, they’ve reduced the possibility of human error—which also happens to be the leading cause of traffic accidents.
These machines have improved my economic efficiency as well as my quality of life. As they move off the farm and into world of ordinary driving, let’s cheer them on as they strive to make our cross-town commutes more convenient and our highway travels safer.
This column first appeared at USA Today on October 4.