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No Diesel, No Driver: California Company Offers All-Electric Autonomous Tractor for $50K

An eager reader notes that one of those new California companies slurping up all the venture capital that Senator John Thune was whining about this week is building the first all-electric smart tractor.

Monarch Tractor of Livermore, California, on Tuesday introduced what the technology manufacturer calls the world’s first fully electric, driver-optional, smart tractor integrated onto a single platform.

“What makes Monarch Tractor unique is that you are answering the three big challenges farmers have,” said Praveen Penmetsa, co-founder and CEO, Monarch Tractor. “Farmers have labor shortages around the globe. Farmers are under tremendous pressure from their buyers to reduce emissions and provide more sustainability data (to their buyers). Farmers are also working with razor-thin margins.”

This tractor addresses those issues by combining electrification, automation, machine learning and data analysis to improve the manager’s real-time vision of the farming operation by collecting both visual and digitized data from the field. Monarch began deploying electric tractors in 2017 and 2018 in California and India. As a company, Monarch Tractor was founded two years ago [Dan Miller, “All-Electric Tractor Unveiled,” DTN Progressive Farmer, 2020.12.09].

Farm from your phone—the Monarch Tractor, company photo.
Farm from your phone—the Monarch Tractor, company photo.

According to Monarch, replacing one diesel tractor with its electric tractor produces the same emissions reduction as replacing fourteen fossil-fuel automobiles. The 40-horsepower engine (70 hp in short bursts) can serve as a generator to power other devices in the field—the promo video below shows the tractor powering a welder. It also keeps operators safer with roll and collision prevention, vision-based power take-off safety, and cameras… as well as the fact that the driver can be back at home monitoring the work on a phone instead of sitting in the driver’s seat breathing in pesticides:

And to boot, electric instead of diesel reduces daily operating costs by $45, which cofounder and former Tesla exec Marc Schwager says in the above video can lead to 20% more profitability for farmers nationwide.

I suspect this tractor will inspire loathing and fear here in Trumpistan, as “all-electric” means “zero tailpipe emissions,” which means less market for Keystone XL and our other Big Oil exploiters, and “smart” means “driver optional,” which could mean fewer farmers having to hang around in Hyde, Hand, and Beadle counties to do the traditional work of farming.

But Monarch’s small tractor won’t drain Main Street Highmore of customers all by itself. This machine still needs someone to come swap out the $15K battery pack on a hard day of work:

The Monarch is powered by a large battery with 10 hours or more of operating time. Under high workloads, the battery is designed to give owners four to five hours of operation. The battery system lasts 10 years, Monarch says. A battery recharge requires up to five hours. However, Monarch sells as an option a swappable battery pack. The swap can be completed by one person in 10 minutes. The location of the battery, over the front axle, is a design feature to give the tractor improved stability. More weight on the axle means less ballast is needed on the front [Miller, 2020.12.09].

But Monarch’s $50K tractor is drawing investors, talent (Tesla’s Schwager; former Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg is an advisor), and buyers:

The 35-person company says “hundreds” of customers have already placed $500 deposits.

“They have all the elements to be a strong, robust, growing business,” Muilenburg told Bloomberg. CEO Praveen Penmetsa says the former aviation executive who made his entire career at Boeing, is “very engaged” [Graham Rapier, “Boeing’s Fired CEO’s Next Act Involves Self-Driving Electric Tractors Made by a Former Tesla Executive,” Business Insider, 2020.12.15].

Maybe the Monarch tractor is too small for South Dakota’s Earl Butz fans, but Monarch isn’t worried about rolling more giants in the earth; they are targeting markets outside South Dakota that want smaller, sustainable technology:

Monarch began deploying electric tractors in 2017 and 2018 in California and India. As a company, Monarch Tractor was founded two years ago.

…The initial target markets for Monarch tractors are vineyards, fruit and nut orchards and vegetable operations [Miller, 2020.12.09].

Hey, Senator Thune! Maybe the reason more venture capital goes to outfits like Monarch in California is because your home folks are stuck in old ways of thinking and farming.

10 Comments

  1. Chris S. 2020-12-18 07:27

    Great, another way to eliminate jobs and productive manual labor for no real reason other than to increase profits. But the tech triumphalists will squee ecstatically, even as the buggy “autopilot” of the vehicle causes it to run through fences, ram into buildings, and randomly burst into flames like a Tesla.

  2. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2020-12-18 07:38

    But imagine it, Chris: with a Monarch tractor, I could finally get into farming, sitting here at my desk, one window on my computer for writing the blog, one window open with all my research, and a third open showing the tractor’s progress out in my vineyard….

  3. Edwin Arndt 2020-12-18 10:24

    Cory, do you have any idea what a 450 horse power tractor
    would look like? Neither do I.

    I don’t believe autonomous machinery will work in most of
    the country. How will an autonomous tractor recognize a
    wet spot in the field and decide if it can go through it or
    if it needs to go around it. Just one example.

  4. leslie 2020-12-18 10:37

    Sensors, Edwin!

    We sniff h20 on mars and the moon.

    Military drones have been killing in the fields for two decades.

  5. jerry 2020-12-18 12:24

    I do I do, I know what a 450 horsepower tractor looks like. Full large scale farmers have them. If you farm 10,000 acres, you need large scale tractors, but then again, this may be an answer if you put enough of them in the field on their own.

    “Lastly, farm or row crop tractors have 85 to 450 hp and are the only choice for full-scale farmers, large plots of land and rough terrain. Naturally, they’re the biggest and most expensive and are made with top features like comfortable seating and heating and air conditioning.”

    Cost of farm tractors: A standard tractor can sell for under $9,000, while the more powerful farming tractors selling for $75,000. Here’s some averages to keep in mind:

    Mid-size farm tractors with 25hp – 80hp are generally priced from $22,000 to $48,000.
    Bigger tractors that come with 100 hp and 4-wheel drive are a bit more costly, ranging $55,000 to $70,000.
    The most powerful tractors with 150 hp are going to cost at least $72,000 and in some cases will exceed $120,000.” https://priceithere.com/tractor-prices/

    At $65,000.00 a copy (with the additional battery pack) a farmer could easily purchase two of these for larger scale operations. With the sensors they have, they would be able to sniff out danger areas. As they could operate on a 24/7 time schedule, farming could be adjusted to allow for weather conditions.

  6. Chris S. 2020-12-18 12:34

    Enhanced driver assist technology (or whatever name any individual company uses) is one thing. Fully autonomous “self-driving” technology is quite another thing. It’s been promised for years, and it still isn’t here. If the most-hyped “autonomous” cars have trouble distinguishing road markings, parked cars, pedestrians, shadows vs. objects, objects in the rain, etc., I can’t imagine how that technology would work in tractors that operate on irregular, unmarked, uneven terrain that often has many unusual, unexpected obstacles in it — more so even than a well-marked roadway that gives our current technology problems. I guess we could put the entire NASA Mars Rover staff in charge of monitoring each tractor, but that seems a bit inefficient to just having a good, old-fashioned person in the tractor.

  7. jerry 2020-12-18 14:13

    Chris S, right now, you can program your farm implements using GPS. They almost self drive right now and the technology is improving right along. The 5G networks and the soon to be 6G networks will make those twists and turns even more accurate. Check this out with a John Deere system https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mVs9masU5yw

    China has now declared that they will make an area the size of Ireland into new tillable farm land. It’s clear that in order to keep the pace of growth, we will need more electric farm implements and more autonomous driven vehicles. Trucks are going that way as well and are being tested on actual roadways currently.

  8. Chris Sonne 2020-12-18 14:42

    Jerry, yes I know you can program farm equipment with GPS. That’s maybe practical and doable in some places, but it hardly seems necessary to “keep up with China”—or are we saying that we can’t compete with China unless we have Free Labor and total automation, which, even if it succeeds, means lots more unemployed people—or are all those unemployed farm laborers going to “learn to code” and move to Silicon Valley, like the coal miners were told to do?

    Regardless, programming a tractor to circle a field using GPS is not analogous to trucks being made “driverless” for highways—though the latter also creates unnecessary unemployment and even more dangerous road conditions for everyone else. I’m not a technophobe, but I really don’t understand the driverless vehicle mania and all the safety problems people willingly overlook. (Plus, anyone who wants to can look up the multiple times Elon Musk promised cars with full autopilot “in 6 months” or “by the end of the year.”)

  9. Mark Anderson 2020-12-18 17:18

    Now if they could just find a way to get rid of all that rising rock without masses of farm kids picking it up every year you guys would have it made.

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