Largely due to the leadership, presence, and success of Tesla, electric vehicles have achieved a much more prominent position in the automotive industry than they have ever enjoyed. They have also been featured in far more media than they were just ten years ago. This year, quite a few non-Tesla electric vehicles are coming on the scene as well.
There are also some intriguing possibilities for electric vehicles outside of personal transportation, such as electric tractors for the agricultural industry. Electric tractors present some tantalizing opportunities — mostly by not utilizing fossil fuels and loud diesel engines that generate a great deal of noxious air pollution.
Electric tractors are in the first phase of commercial development: one might say the most exciting stage because of all the technological and environmental possibilities. Bakur Kvezereli, Ztractor‘s founder, agreed to answer some questions about their new models for CleanTechnica.
Who is the target audience for an all-electric autonomous tractor?
Globally, our primary users are farmers who are growing vegetables, pulses, berries, and grapes. In the US we suspect to find our early-adopters in California, Oregon, Washington, and Missouri, due largely to their commitment to sustainable farming and agriculture workforce crisis. Additionally, we have very loyal prospect buyers in Norway, the Netherlands, Austria, Switzerland, and Germany who are waiting for their own Ztractor for several months.
Local and regional government organizations, especially air quality and agriculture boards, are also good targets for us because members see the value in automating and decarbonizing agriculture to benefit their communities. Additionally, we are looking at European dealers as a target for downstream sales.
Worldwide, we are working with third parties who are investing in emission reduction in agriculture including Central Coast Community Energy, who provides grants to customers and are dedicated to electrifying their tractors, and Mitacs, a Canadian organization dedicated to solving business problems with innovation.
Are there multiple models and what are the prices or price range?
Ztractor has three unique models in the manufacturing pipeline to service a variety of farms.
The Bearcub 24 tractor is the smallest and most compact of Ztractor’s offerings, and the model is geared toward smaller organic farms. It can work with at least 130 crops, the most popular being vegetables, berries, and grapes. The Bearcub works with 75 implements like the disc harrow, vegetable seeder, mulch layer, and precision sprayer, to name a few. Additionally, the tractor comes equipped with an adjustable chassis system and a 3-point hitch, travels up to 10 mph, and has a PTO that supports all category-1 implements. This model excels in working in vineyards and orchards, because of the ability it has to spray the grapes unmanned, limiting unnecessary chemical exposure.
The Mars 45 tractor is a great fit for all size farms, and can be used nationwide on at least 250 crops, such as beans, root vegetables, and potatoes. It is more heavy-duty than the Bearcub model and can work with 150 various tractor implements like a rotary tiller, moldboard plow, and chisel.
The SuperPilot 125 is our largest and most heavy-duty tractor and is made specifically for large acre farms. The tractor works with 50 implements, including a cultivator, disc bedder, and 12-row planter, to name a few. The tractor has the ability to work 80 crops, including wheat, corn, soy, and rice.
The BearCub model will sell averaging at $42,000 (price subject to change) including data processing, computer vision features, any other software products or narrow niches for different tasks. However, Ztractor is currently conducting ongoing research to determine the most competitive market price for the farming communities and there is not a set cost in place yet for any of the models.
Would an owner/operator run an electric autonomous tractor remotely on a laptop, desktop, tablet, or phone?
Farmers can use either a tablet or computer to set field boundaries and operate the all-electric tractor without physically driving, but operators must stay within five miles or less of the site. Farmers can set field boundaries, directions, and implement instructions by utilizing Ztractor’s maps network, and all tractors have Level 2 autonomy capabilities. The advanced safety features with 67 sensors, six cameras, and GPS, the 100% electric Bearcub-24 model collects real-time ag data while operating in the field. Its IoT framework and machine learning algorithm interprets the data, which leads to higher efficiency and increased yield.
How long can one of the company’s electric tractors operate on a full charge and how long does it take to recharge?
Early model Ztractors charged in about four hours. However, we are in the process of upgrading our battery to shorten charging time by half. Because the batteries differ in size in each tractor model, the operation period differs as well. Our smallest tractor, the Bearcub, typically uses a 24 kWh battery and typically can offer about 8 hours of usage on one charge. Our medium-sized model, the Mars, can typically farm for 10 hours, depending on the soil type and implement. Lastly, the SuperPilot offers 12 hours on one charge. We expect to adjust battery sizes as technology improves and prices come down.
Does each tractor have onboard sensors and software to make sure it does not run into or over anything?
Yes, each tractor has optics and sensors to prevent collisions. With 67 sensors, six cameras, and GPS, at an average operation speed of 3 mph it is extremely safe to operate Ztractors in off-road farm areas.
Do any of the electric tractors have AI so they learn as they work in the fields?
The tractors are equipped with seven core features that make up a machine learning functionality that allows the tractor to learn from the data it retrieves. Unlike other autonomous technologies, the tractor learns from normal operations instead of specifically driving tractors for data collection before or after filed operations. We program it to learn the space and prevent itself from running into anything, making it smarter. There is also a human filter to this learning as well. Farmers set up zones and choose the trajectories in which they want their tractor to work using satellites and aerial photos of fields.
All models collect real-time agricultural data feeds into our application software. This application uses an IoT framework and a machine-learning algorithm to help farmers gain better insight into their crops and save time and money.
Eventually, could they be fully automated so they could operate without constant human supervision and guidance?
Ztractors run at level 2 autonomy or partial driving automation. Because of this, the operator must be present within five miles of the tractor. Though we cannot make any promises on this aspect of technology today, we are optimistic that as we deploy more tractors and build upon the machine learning and data collection components, the level of autonomy will increase.
What is the use life of an electric tractor and its batteries?
We can confidently say the Ztractors could last 15+ years with the right care and maintenance.This is especially true if owners replace the batteries after their 8-year lifespan.
Are repair costs lower for an electric tractor because their technology is simpler than a gas or diesel-powered tractor?
Not only are maintenance and repair costs lower but farmers also save considerably on insurance, fuel, and labor costs.
Are any of the company’s tractors available for purchase now or are any being used in agriculture at the moment?
Ztractors will be distributed worldwide this year and will be available in both the US and Europe. The company is also working to generate buzz in farming communities in the US. The recent billboard campaign near the University of Missouri has generated extensive consumer and farmers community interest.
Ztractor is also doing extensive field research and testing in local farms in California, where the company is headquartered. Some testing sites include orchard nurseries and vegetable farms. Ztractors have performed well in these pilot programs.