By Bakur Kvezereli

Despite all the media attention and focus on Elon Musk, electric cars, and self-driving Ubers, the main industry steering towards autonomous and electric vehicles is agriculture. Over recent years, electric farming has opened up a wealth of interest from around the world as businesses and individuals look towards new alternatives to reduce CO2 levels and improve production efficiency. Now, with prototypes in motion and huge industry players sitting in the driver’s seat, electric tractors are soon to be available for farms across the globe.

Advancements are moving surprisingly quickly. The market size for new tractor sales each year is about $71 billion, with automation farm equipment set to reach a market of over $180 billion by 2024. This transformation in agriculture is attracting a gold rush of interest, and it won’t be long before electric, autonomous farming equipment out-numbers electric vehicles. Here’s why:

Timely arrival

In many parts of the world, autonomous farming technology is desperately needed. High labor costs, and a declining workforce is driving the industry demand. Countries such as Denmark and Japan are on the edge of losing farms due to these factors and are therefore left with no other alternatives. Moreover, Japan’s producer population is rapidly aging, with those aged 60+ soon to comprise over 70% of all producers in their agricultural sector. Many of these countries view electric tractors as a cheaper solution. Unlike fuel or diesel which come with the baggage of needing regular engine oil, oil filters etc., electric equipment requires less operation, less maintenance and zero fuel cost.

The U.S is also faced with a similar issue. Not only are less people wanting to drive a tractor for a living, but workers in various states need a specific license to drive heavy farm equipment, which costs far higher than any other vehicle license. In California, which has a huge undocumented immigrant population, the workforce is there, however, farmers are unable to hire immigrants without papers as they cannot obtain a tractor licence certification. Tie this on top of high labor costs (average of $19/hour in the U.S for a tractor driver), and it’s no wonder that electric, self driving tractors are proving to be a favorable alternative. Driverless equipment also opens up a variety of new and more popular job roles for workers with engineering and software developer skills.

In the U.K, there are a number of regulatory regimes that apply to the use of tractors; particularly over maximum limits on driving time and minimum requirements for breaks and rest periods. This has resulted in the need for more farm workers to make up for productivity loss. With autonomous, electric tractors, farmers can oversee the operation of several vehicles and jobs at once, without the need for extra workers.

Big players are making the move

As the technology for self-driving tractors looks to no longer be science fiction, more and more industry players are getting involved to help fuel its development in agriculture. Food companies in particular are helping bring driverless and battery powered agricultural equipment into the spotlight. Anheuser-Busch (owner of Budweiser) and Pepsi have both recently placed an order for Tesla’s new electric trucks, known as the Semis. Not only has this sent a clear message towards agricultural players to also invest in electric and autonomous driving technology in this field, but it also proves that zero emission electric vehicle implementation in this industry is possible. Starting with the supply chain side of business is the first stepping stone towards reducing the carbon footprint in all areas of agricultural production.

It won’t be long before food companies have an ethical sticker, or label (similar to the Fairtrade Foundation sticker), to show they are electric emission only, or rely on self-driving farm equipment. In fact, the global market value of ethically labeled packaged foods is projected to grow from $793.3 billion in 2015 to $872.7 by 2020. The Fairtrade Foundation now has over 4,500 Fairtrade products, all bearing the now globally recognized sticker, and over 1.65 million farmers and workers spread across more than 74 countries participating in Fairtrade. As well known companies using electric emission and self-driving farming start to advertise this new arm of the sustainable food movement, more companies will follow suit.

Environmental pressure is rising

Arguably the principal reason why manufacturers are on the brink of introducing electric and driverless equipment onto farms comes down to environmental factors. With zero emissions and minimal noise pollution, electrically-powered agricultural vehicles could make a huge impact on combating climate change. Moreover, the introduction of electric farming does not threaten production or food security, but instead improves overall efficiency.

Governments around the world are cracking down on efforts to reduce C02 levels and improve air quality. Last year, the UK government announced plans to cut their emissions by banning the purchasing of new petrol and diesel cars by 2040, shortly after France announced its switch to all-electric cars by 2040. An increasing number of grants are also being given by clean air agencies to the agricultural industry to specifically target this sector which could cut down their carbon footprint and implement environmentally friendly practices.

Another push to switch to electric powered farm vehicles is down to the fact that it eliminates direct contamination of food by airborne diesel emission. Food companies all over the world are being pushed into proving that their products are natural and organic, and therefore electric farming equipment is becoming a growing solution to reduce sources of unnatural food damage.

While arguments remain that electric tractors are not yet feasible, and that huge batteries would be needed to power them, some have already been released onto the market. Many industry players anticipate diesel-electric hybrid and battery powered electric driverless tractors to be available worldwide from 2020 onwards. Unlike the movement towards electric autonomous cars, self-driving battery powered farm equipment has a higher opportunity to make a significant contribution to not only farm management, but to saving the environment. This industry therefore has the momentum and the power to overtake cars in the race to self drive.

Bakur Kvezereli is CEO of Ztractor, a company manufacturing the world’s first autonomous-electric tractor. Bakur’s single mission is to allow farmers to sustainably operate with environmentally-friendly and efficient 100% electric farm vehicles.