Solectrac CEO Mani Iyer recently took the time to share his passion about electric tractors with me. In this interview, we talked about the history of the company, how Tesla moved the market, supply chain constraints, autonomous tractors, and more.
Mani also recently sat down with CleanTechnica on Cleantech Talk to talk about the company’s new electric tractor products. You can listen to that here.
Mani explained that Solectrac is named for solar and tractors — a unique blend of both — and then touched upon the history of the company. Although the co-founder, Steve Heckeroth, was not on the call, Mani pointed out that Steve’s dedication is the driving force behind the company.
“Steve has been working on any and all electric products for the last 30 years. He commissioned a company in 2012, and Ideanomics, our parent company, invested in 2020 and finally bought it in 2021.”
Steve had been converting gas and diesel vehicles to electric, and the electric tractor began to pick up pace in July 2021. The company commercialized a 25-horsepower electric tractor and brought it to market. Mani said that they’ve sold several and plan to sell more by the end of the year. In addition to this, Solectrac plans to extend its portfolio to more horsepower and more products. There are now around 50 people working at Solectrac.
“We all know the evidence of the rapid climate change. Steve has never believed in gas and fossil fuels. He’s always been a proponent of electric and renewable energy. He’s an architect by design and has worked for a solar company for almost 15 years. So, he’s a solar expert and has been lobbying in the State of California to go electric for thirty years.
“It probably wasn’t the right time with the battery price as well as the technology not advancing fast enough. Thanks to Tesla, we would certainly like to be the Tesla of tractors, so we have caught up on it very quickly. Steve’s collaborated with several companies both internally and externally around the world.”
And this, Mani explained, led to the birth of the 25-horsepower all-electric tractor.
Solectrac currently has three tractors available — the e25, e70N, and eUtility. What’s unique about these tractors is that they can be charged by solar power via the inverter that operates within a solar array. Eventually, the tractors will be able to double as emergency backups if the utility grid is to fail.
“We haven’t really delivered that to the market. But yes, our products will in the future deliver emergency backup. It’s a simple system. You put an inverter and you bring power out of the tractor to back up and power anything, whether it’s home, utilities, or farms.”
Although this feature isn’t yet available for all of the products, it is available for the e70N, the 70-horsepower tractor which recently won the WINnovation Award and was among the winners of World Ag Expo’s Top 10 New Products Competition.
How Will The Supply Chain Constraints Affect Solectrac?
An article from The Detroit News reported that Stellantis CEO Carlos Tavares said that he expects the semiconductor shortage to extend through the rest of 2022 as the industry awaits additional production to come online, a years-long process. I was curious as to how the constraints might affect Solectrac and asked Mani. He told me, “I think the supply chain has been a constraint and Covid did not help. They’re catching up fast. It is only a matter of time when the supply chain will be caught up. Having said that, factories were sort of consolidated or dependent on China. But the world is moving fast. I’ve seen so many companies coming up in Europe. The US itself is investing money across states, whether it’s Georgia, Kentucky, Tennessee, California, Utah, Phoenix, Arizona — you name it. They’re investing in battery technology, including of course not just the Teslas of the world but the GMs and the Fords.”
There are many companies in Michigan alone that are dedicated to the entire EV architecture, which includes semiconductor chips and autonomous technology. Mani has no doubt that it’s only a matter of time for both the availability in terms of having the EV architecture as well as the cost to come down.
Mani added that Solectrac offers its fully electric tractors at around 25–30% tighter than competitors’ diesel tractors. The savings, however, can be felt over the course of ownership of the tractor.
The tractors, Mani explained, can also be powered by wind or solar. And they can feed the grid similar to how a virtual power plant works. With Tesla, customers who have Powerwalls can supply energy back to the grid.
He added that large tractors in the agricultural world mean productivity, whereas small tractors are more of a hobby.
“Just imagine that today you use a diesel tractor and you’ve got all kinds of smoke hitting you and the noise. You use the electric tractor and connect with nature and the land. It’s going to be an awesome experience than doing it with a diesel tractor.”
Switching from diesel tractors to electric is also easy and Mani explained that the accessories that are used on diesel tractors can be used on electric ones. The only difference is that Solectrac tractors don’t have the need for fossil fuels.
Autonomous Robo Solectrac Tractors?
I was curious to know if Solectrac had plans for autonomous or robo tractors in the future. Mani said that eventually, yes, but perhaps autonomous isn’t the best thing for all farmers.
“We met with a company in California that can convert our current tractors to be autonomous. But there are reasons why autonomous will work in certain areas and it won’t work in other areas.
“For example, in the California vineyards, if you wanted to spray or use chemicals, which is not the right way to do business, but you can use an autonomous tractor so that you don’t create a health hazard for the operator.
“When it comes to hobby farmers, lifestyle farmers, organic farmers, small vegetable farmers, they are small in nature. They want to use the tractor and experience it. It is not driving an on-road vehicle on the road. This had a lot of attachments. You have got many attachments on the three-point hitch behind the tractor and then you have the loader in the front which has to be moving materials.
“You’ve got all kinds of backhoe attachments. So, it’s not easy to make these autonomous. And it is more about experience. People want to go out of their homes and go on the land and have an experiences of doing it themselves and then look back and see how awesome it looks.
“I don’t know to what extent autonomous will be beneficial there, but certainly when it comes to road crop or general applications in the ag world could go autonomous and our tractors could become compatible over a period of time.”
There’s No Reason Why One Should Not Buy An Electric Vehicle Over Diesel
Mani noted that several years ago was a completely different era. The era before EVs was when gas and diesel reigned supreme. The market wasn’t ready for EVs. However, Tesla, Mani emphasized, changed all of that — and not just Tesla, but the many companies that are innovating in the mobility space with a focus on renewable and clean energy.
“There was a time when electric probably was not ready for the market. But today, having seen what Tesla has done and having seen so many other companies at the ACT show in Los Angeles and Long Beach, and we saw the technology expanding mobility products and services. So I think the time has come.
“I strongly believe that if electric can do the job and still have no pollution, no noise, and can give you all the advantages, there is no reason for anyone to buy diesel. We didn’t have an ultimate technology so there was no other choice then other than buying gas or diesel. But now with electric leading from the forefront, there is no reason why anyone should not.
“Coming back to the tractor world, we get full power, no noise, no pollution, less vibration, and an awesome experience when you till the land. There’s no reason why one should not buy an electric over diesel.”
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