Forget Self-Driving Cars—John Deere’s Autonomous Tractor Shows the Way

Cities are no place for robot vehicles

Key Takeaways

  • Messy, unpredictable city streets make life hard for self-driving cars. 
  • John Deere’s new tractor is fully autonomous.
  • Long-haul trucks on less-chaotic freeways are also perfect self-driving candidates.
A battery-powered John Deere tractor.

John Deere

The self-driving vehicle story ends with autonomous cars ferrying city-dwellers around town, free from the responsibilities of driving themselves. But the truth is, that's never going to happen—and it doesn't have to. 

Cities are terrible places for autonomous cars. They're full of unpredictable humans on bikes, on foot, and in regular cars. If you wanted to custom-design an environment that made it hard for a computer to navigate safely, you'd end up with a modern city. And—in European cities at least—even human-driven cars are on the way out. But there is a place for autonomous vehicles—on freeways, in fields, and generally away from fragile humans. 

"I believe the best place to start is by making a self-driven boat/ship. There is less complexity than a self-driven car in city streets and all the different variables possible compared to the sea," Matthew Hart, proprietor of automotive advice site AxleWise, told Lifewire via email. 

Farms and Freeways

Self-driving cars are attractive in the way that flying cars and jetpacks are attractive. They seem futuristic and fun. They’re better versions of existing tech. But they’re also just as impractical as regular cars. They still need to be parked, still burn gasoline, run on the same roads that violate the communal space of the places we live, and can still kill people in a collision. 

But there are plenty of other kinds of vehicles that are much better suited to autonomy.

An autonomous John Deere tractor.

John Deere

John Deere’s latest tractor, for example, requires no driver. And when you think about it, why should it? A tractor dragging a plow might need to navigate rough terrain carefully, but those bumps and troughs don’t move. After that, it’s just driving up and down a field. No pedestrians, no other vehicles—easy. Deere’s fully autonomous tractor builds on years of increasingly automated tech and packs cameras along with its GPS to spot anomalies along the way. If it’s confused, it stops to wait (try that in a city), and a remote human operator in a call center checks it out. 

Autonomous Delivery

Another relatively simple driving environment is the freeway. You’re driving among human-piloted vehicles, but even those are way more predictable than on urban streets. Long-haul freight trucks spend the majority of their driving time on these easy roads, and are a perfect candidate for autonomy—especially as highways make up only 5% of US roads, and are therefore easier to accurately map. 

In the US, trucks carry more than 70% of all cargo moved, according to the America Trucking Association. They make up only 1% of traffic, but cause almost 10% of highway deaths. Removing the drivers also makes road freight cheaper. There’s no need for a human to sleep or take rest breaks, and self-driving trucks traveling in convoy can seriously reduce fuel consumption. Drivers will still be needed for the final leg of the journey, but reducing pollution from delivery vehicles is a whole separate problem that won’t be solved by self-driving vehicles either. 

Is There Any Place for Self-Driving Cars?

This isn't to say that self-driving cars are useless. It's just that they probably won't replace personal automobiles the way we think. They could work in more limited spaces or in situations where the vehicle can prioritize the safety of pedestrians over the convenience of the passenger. 

Someone sitting behind the wheel of an automobile in heavy city traffic.

Dan Gold / Unsplash

"Self-driving vehicles may be a possibility in large corporate campuses, like Google or Nike. These kinds of campuses are widespread and have a multitude of different buildings, so I could see them being of use to transport items or even people from different ends of the campuses," Kyle MacDonald, director of operations at vehicle fleet tracking company Force by Mojio, told Lifewire via email. 

Another option might be city buses or trams, especially bus routes that are physically segregated from regular traffic. And as cities like Paris and Barcelona work to reduce cars in their cities by limiting the roads they can use or closing streets to private vehicles entirely, the appeal of public transit rises–autonomous or not, while the convenience of private automobiles is diminished. 

In short, autonomous vehicles may have a bright future, but they'll be used where they prove cheaper to run and safer than existing human-driven vehicles. Which is to say, not the city.

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