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Autonomous Tractors Could Soon Be Commonplace in California

A Livermore-based company hopes to implement fleets of driver-optional, electric tractors to farms and vineyards by the end of this year. But critics say the company has yet to prove its autonomous tractors are safe enough for use.

(TNS) — At Georges III Vineyard, a famous plot in the Napa Valley, Calif., town of Rutherford that produces $150 bottles of Cabernet Sauvignon, a tractor is moving through vine rows. It's a small, white vehicle, somewhat resembling a souped-up golf cart. A razor-like apparatus affixed to the tractor's rear mows the ground behind it. Standard procedure for a Napa Valley vineyard at this time of year, but there's one very non-standard element of this particular tractor. There's no one in it.

Welcome to the age of the self-driving tractor.

It's a technology that appears to be out ahead of the vaunted self-driving passenger car. Notoriously, the auto industry's onetime forecast that there would be 10 million self-driving passenger cars on the road by 2020 did not come to pass. But while Waymo and Cruise sedans continue to plod experimentally through the streets of San Francisco, a Livermore company called Monarch is aiming to deploy fleets of its driver-optional electric tractors to vineyards and farms by the end of this year.

That's pending a decision expected Thursday from the state's Division of Occupational Safety and Health. Monarch has asked the board to amend a regulation from the 1970s that prohibits the use of autonomous agricultural equipment without an operator. Monarch CEO Praveen Penmetsa contends it's time to change that rule, given his tractor's safety record and potential to help advance farming. Groups including the California Farm Bureau and the California Association of Winegrape Growers agree.

But critics say Monarch hasn't proved that its tractors are safe enough in their autonomous state.

"We draw the line when it comes to taking the operator off the tractor and handing it over to an algorithm," said Mitch Steiger, legislative advocate with the California Labor Federation, which would like to see Cal/ OSHA deny Monarch's petition.

Despite the pushback, many grape farmers say the use of autonomous tractors is only a matter of time.

"We truly believe that autonomy is the way of the future in farming," said Niki Wente, director of vineyard operations at Livermore's Wente Vineyards, which has been testing Monarch tractors since 2019 (but has so far kept drivers aboard). "I think it's potentially a revolution."

The Monarch can do a lot of things, according to Penmetsa, who has been working in the electric-vehicle space since the early 2000s. Its electric batteries will reduce farmers' reliance on fuel, cut down on emissions and eventually even enable them to sell power back to the grid, he said. Its smart functions may allow farmers to detect problems in their crops early, to identify water stress, to apply sprays with more precision and offer other advantages.

But it's the Monarch's driver-optional feature that has become its most salient point of differentiation — and, with the Cal/ OSHA petition, its source of controversy.

The appeal of an autonomous tractor for those who own farms is clear. Amid a long-term shortage of agricultural labor, farmers could use their workforce more efficiently. Instead of having one driver on every tractor, a single employee could oversee multiple tractors remotely.

Autonomous tractors also offer the tantalizing possibility of removing workers from the field during extreme weather events like high heat or wildfire smoke — an especially relevant topic in Wine Country lately — and keeping them away from chemicals like pesticides that a tractor may apply to a crop.

Pam Starr, who has been using a Monarch at her Crocker & Starr Vineyards in St. Helena, so far with a human in the driver's seat, said the machine may help achieve the simultaneous goals of "saving human bodies, encouraging human brain activity and reducing our carbon footprint."

Opponents say the tractors are more likely to endanger, rather than save, workers.

"We live in a world of laptops and cellphones where glitches are common," said Steiger. "When the autonomous tractor fails, well, now you're running workers over."

Penmetsa and his team argue they've installed rigorous safeguards. If a person comes within 5-10 meters of a Monarch while it's in motion, it starts beeping as a warning signal. If the person reaches a 7-foot radius of the tractor, it stops moving completely. Programming a hard boundary like that is easier with a tractor than self-driving passenger cars, which have to operate constantly within close proximity of people, including pedestrians. Right now all Monarch tractors are limited to a maximum 3.1 mph.

The other primary argument against self-driving tractors, one reinforced by Steiger, is that they will eliminate the drivers' jobs. Starr and Wente, who have both been granted experimental variances by Cal/ OSHA to use the Monarch at their properties, said that will not happen.

"There's no way we could eliminate jobs," said Wente, who says she cannot find as many workers as she'd like to hire. But it would allow her to redirect tractor drivers to other, more important jobs. "A lot of our tractor drivers are our best scouts — they can spot any vine health issue right away."

"We could elevate their role," said Mauricio Soto, general manager of Beckstoffer Vineyards, which owns Georges III Vineyard.

It's not an accident that Monarch has focused its early experiments on vineyards. Because fine wine is a high-margin business, many wineries can afford to test new technologies. The wine industry also is a highly visible bellwether in the agricultural world, often setting trends that later are adopted in orchards and fields of leafy greens.

Also, one of Monarch's four co-founders has deep wine-industry connections: Carlo Mondavi, grandson of the late Robert Mondavi, Napa Valley's best-known winemaker. Mondavi joined forces with Penmetsa and co-founders Zachary Omohundro and Mark Schwager after years of trying, with limited success, to make the wine industry greener. Mondavi felt strongly about eliminating synthetic pesticides and decreasing carbon emissions, and he started a campaign called the Monarch Challenge, which involved selling a rosé wine to raise money for a butterfly-protection organization.

Eventually, Mondavi understood that selling rosé and talking about butterflies was not going to change American farming. The only thing that could: money.

"It has to work financially for farmers," he said.

The name of his sustainability challenge carried over to the new tractor company, which the four co-founders formed in 2018. It has raised $81 million in venture funding, the company confirmed.

Producing an affordable autonomous tractor was not possible a decade ago. When Penmetsa and Omohundro made their first prototype in 2015, the hardware was exorbitantly expensive. Tesla changed that, Penmetsa said, effectively commoditizing cameras, sensors and other autonomous-vehicle parts.

Compared with its competition, the Monarch is cheap. In January, John Deere unveiled an autonomous electric tractor at a trade show that it hopes to start selling later this year. The price will likely exceed $500,000, many in the industry expect. (The John Deere 8R, the nonautonomous model it's based on, goes for that price.) The basic Monarch, by comparison, costs $58,000 and its four-wheel-drive model $68,000. Customers can reserve one with a $500 deposit. Soto said that most of Beckstoffer's diesel-powered tractors cost between $60,000 and $75,000.

"Every farmer should be able to buy our tractor," said Penmetsa. The Monarch, 147 inches long, is smaller than the 253-inch-long Deere.

Some autonomous functions are already in use in U.S. agriculture, said David Bevly, a professor of mechanical engineering at Auburn University. Tractors with autonomous steering, for example, are common on large farms in places like Texas; there's still an operator in the cab, but the vehicle keeps on course while the operator focuses on other things.

It's that issue — whether a driver needs to be aboard — that will be the focus of Cal/ OSHA's meeting this week. The board rejected a similar petition (Monarch was not involved) in 2019, citing a lack of research on autonomous tractor safety. Monarch officials believe there's been enough new experimentation since, including the ongoing trials at Wente and Crocker & Starr, to prove the tractor is safe.

Cal/ OSHA's board has three options: It can deny the petition, grant it, or grant it in part, which likely would involve convening a group to conduct further study. If the petition is approved, it would eliminate the need for the experimental variances that Wente and Crocker & Starr have. Monarch has produced only two dozen tractors so far in a model known as the Pilot Series, but expects to start shipping many more of a subsequent model, the Founder Series, in the fourth quarter of this year.

The California Farm Bureau supports the formation of an advisory committee, said its director of employment policy, Brian Little. He says it's clear that autonomous vehicles will be part of the future, and it's time to figure out how they'll fit into the agricultural industry. The opposition, he said, is shortsighted: "This is an age-old conversation about implementation of tech versus jobs."

Auburn's Bevly pointed to the example of manufacturing lines in factories, where many rote tasks are now done by robots while the humans monitor them — at a safer distance from dangerous equipment.

The advent of self-driving vehicles, tractors or otherwise, presents many thorny questions. Conversations on the subject inevitably focus on hypothetical ethical dilemmas. Whatever the possible problems these vehicles present, however, they're undoubtedly more palatable in a farm than on a city street.

Driverless passenger cars have to account for rogue pedestrians, out-of-order stoplights, crossing guards. Driverless tractors don't.

"The farm is very, very constrained," Bevly said. "There's generally not other vehicles, not other people. You're in a remote area ... with good sky visibility for GPS systems."

(c)2022 the San Francisco Chronicle. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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