Farming: John Deere’s driverless tractors have hit bump in the road - Brian Henderson

Excitement ran high in the farming media last week when the second biggest tractor company in the world, John Deere, announced that they were soon to release their first autonomous tractor on to the market.

John Deere’s autonomous tractor
John Deere’s autonomous tractor

For, while we’ve all grown used to the ‘hands-free’ option available with GPS auto-steer guidance systems on our big pieces of machinery, taking that a step further and having little more to do to cultivate a field than to drive the tractor down there and then just let it get on with it would certainly appeal to many.

Well, I say many but there still remains a hardcore of tractor fanatics who would happily spend each and every day ensconsed in their cosy cab, driving up and down the same field or racing about the roads with beacons ablaze.

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And some of these fan-boys devote the sort of level of support to one brand or colour equalled only on the pre-Covid football terraces or in the stands at the six nations matches.

Some express this sort of love for the newest, shiniest machines, fresh off the production line, with perfect paintwork, the brightest lights and enough electronic switchwork to have stocked an entire branch of Maplins before they closed their local stores.

Others lavish their care and attention upon tractors from a bygone age, surprisingly often stemming from that sweet spot of earliest childhood memory (and before health and safety gone mad), when a run up and down the field – while sitting on dad’s lap, tugging wildly at the steering wheel as he controlled the direction with the split brakes – marked the highlight of the day.

And these classic and vintage tractors are often restored to a concours d’elegance level with paintwork polished to a gleam which would have made the salesman gasp when it initially hit the showroom floor.

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Anyhoo – a lot of the farming papers covered the news of JD’s latest piece of technology after it was revealed to the global farming press in a Steve Jobs-style videocast which was broadcast simultaneously around the world.

The sales pitch at the launch revolved around the three main challenges facing farmers –the ability to recruit the skilled labour required to operate today’s modern machinery on farms, getting the work done when it needs to be done and doing it consistently to maximise crop yield – and the fact that a self-drive tractor addressed all these issues.

“This isn’t a demo, this is a working machine that will be available this year to farmers” was the promise made to the expectant audience as the curtain was raised on this technological marvel.

Bristling with sufficient stereo cameras to avoid all obstacles and equipped with AI machine learning, real-time data sharing along with remote monitoring and management through a cell-phone app, the new vehicle was still totally recognisable as a tractor and was based on a modified 8R410 model which is already available in conventional ‘driver operated’ format.

Of course this isn’t the first time a vehicle with the ability to work unaided has been demonstrated to an eager press corps – and from Harper Adam’s geeky hands-free hectare models through to Case New Holland’s sleek industrial autonomous tractor concept revealed a few years ago, we have routinely had our appetite’s whetted for a tractor which will work on its own.

But the big difference this time round was the fact that this one is going to be commercially available and released onto the market this autumn.

Well – and this is where the disappointment begins to set in for the legions of John Deere fans in Britain and the rest of Europe – it would appear that we ain’t going to be getting it here.

For, in a second lower key press release, Deere revealed that there would only be a limited number of tractors delivered this year, all to North American customers. And while the company added that it would work on furthering the availability for future years, the killer came in the revelation: “The launch of the brand in Europe is currently not planned, as safety regulations currently do not allow the use of autonomous vehicles.”

So while regions with large-scale agriculture, such as North and South America, Australia and the former Soviet countries can look forward to this self-drive tractor, the UK – with its worsening labour shortages – will need to keep “bums on seats”.

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