Google has received tons of gushy press for its bubble-shaped self-driving car, though it's still years from the showroom floor. But for years John Deere has been selling tractors that practically drive themselves for use on farms in America's heartland, where there are few pesky pedestrians or federal rules to get in the way. For a glimpse at the future, meet Jason Poole, a 34-year-old crop consultant from Kansas. After a long day of meetings earlier this month and driving five hours across the state to watch his little girl's softball game, he was still able to run his John Deere tractor until 2 a.m. The land is hilly on Poole's family farm, so he drives the first curved row manually to teach the layout to his tractor's guidance system and handles the turns himself.
Next time you pass a farm where a modern tractor is cruising around a field, take a closer look. While there is a farmer sitting in the cab, the vehicle might be driving itself. That tractor is often operating on auto pilot using semi-autonomous, self-driving technology. While the tractor plows along thanks to features like autosteer and computer-assisted technologies for applying fertilizers or pesticides, the farmer can send work texts or emails, pay bills or even flip through Instagram stories or TikTok videos. For farmers, this kind of efficiency is not a luxury.
Deere & Co. helped mechanize agriculture in 1837 with the first commercially successful steel plow. On Tuesday, the company unveiled a machine that could prove just as transformative: a fully autonomous tractor. John Deere's new 8R tractor uses six pairs of stereo cameras and advanced artificial intelligence to perceive its environment and navigate. It can find its way to a field on its own when given a route and coordinates, then plow the soil or sow seeds without instructions, avoiding obstacles as it goes. A farmer can give the machine new orders using a smartphone app.
John Deere has been in business for nearly 200 years. For those in the agriculture industry, the company that makes green tractors is as well-known as Santa Claus, McDonald's, or John Wayne. Heck, even city folk who've never seen a tractor that wasn't on a television screen know John Deere. The company's so popular even celebrities such as Ashton Kutcher and George Clooney have been known to rock a Deere hat. What most outsiders don't know is that John Deere's not so much a farming vehicle manufacturer these days as it is an agricultural technology company.