California company says electric, driverless tractor could help farmers save on costs

One California farmer is growing green and going green with a new electric, self-driving tractor.

Monarch Tractor, the creator of an electric self-driving tractor, has been testing the vehicles in two California wineries since 2020, including the one owned by fifth-generation winegrower Karl Wente.

Mr. Wente told Fox Business that “It’s sustainability in action and its evolution of the human species. It used to be, a big tractor where you can see the diesel combusting out, and now you just have this quiet electric vehicle running through.”

With drought, inflation and labor shortages hurting California’s agriculture, Monarch Tractor co-founder Mark Schwager thinks the Monarch Tractor can help farmers save big.

Mr. Schwager told Fox Business that “The insights on the farming operations can help farmers to limit their inputs and control their costs.”

In lieu of a human operator, the electric tractor has a remote driver who tracks and receives alerts in real-time with the help of a camera suite in the vehicle’s cab.

Sensors have also been installed to detect livestock, workers and crops in the tractor’s path. The tractor halts its movement until whatever obstructs it, leaves its path. Mr. Schwager added that “There is always a human in the loop,” according to Fox Business.

The company filed a petition to reform safety regulations from the 1970s calling for an operator to be at the controls of the tractor at all times. Changes to the law would allow Monarch Tractor to expand beyond its two experimental farms and sell their product commercially.

In the petition, Monarch Tractor CEO Praveen Penmetsa argued that “With today’s highly advanced autonomy technologies, driverless tractors are an entirely different machine from their twentieth and early twenty-first-century counterparts,” according to Farm Journal.

Government and labor leaders, however, were not so sanguine about Monarch Tractor, arguing that immigrants working in California agriculture would be too afraid to come forward about safety concerns. On June 16, the California Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board (Cal/OSHA) denied the petition.

Board member David Harrison, financial secretary of Operating Engineers Local 3, pointed out that neither of the two wineries working with Monarch Tractor had worker representation.

Mr. Harrison then argued that “We haven’t heard one worker come forward and support this,” according to Farm Journal. Mr. Harrison also added that immigrant workers without labor representation “are the least inclined to stand up and speak when there’s a serious safety hazard present,” according to AgriPulse.

Cal/OSHA chair David Thomas, President of the Northern California District Council of Laborers, concurred, saying at the hearing “If you’re in that population, which is subject to losing your job at the whim of the employer, you’re not going to say anything,” according to AgriPulse.

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