Fully autonomous vehicles in agriculture are likely still several years away, but there also may be a simpler, more efficient pathway to extending the life of farm machinery, while also improving performance.

Electric-based systems are one of the alternatives being pursued by engineers to improve fuel economy, while reducing repair costs. At last month’s Precision Farming Dealer Summit in St. Louis, Kraig Schulz, president of the Autonomous Tractor Corp., broke down the benefits of a “Tesla for tractors” model in the ag industry vs. a transition to fully autonomous vehicles.

One of his key takeaways was that electric motors improve tractor durability and retention of value because they can last longer and require less maintenance.

“If you go to the (U.S.) Department of Energy and you look at their expected lifespans for large motors greater than 100 horsepower, the average expected lifespan for an electric motor is 29 years — 200,000 hours of use — 10 times what you’d get out of a traditional tractor. That’s pretty shocking and that’s part of the reason, not the only reason, but part of the reason why you see Teslas retaining way more than half their value even after roughly half of their expected lifespan. This would certainly help with the cost side for the farmers if their equipment lasted for 25 years and didn’t need the repairs. Some of those costs that they’re facing would go down and start to help with that price vs. costs calculus that they have to do.”

 While electric-based systems may be a more practical avenue to semi-autonomy, Schulz notes that the path isn’t without its obstacles. The biggest challenge being the need to reduce the cost of lithium ion batteries to run a high-horsepower tractor. Current estimates project a battery with 1,500 kilowatt hours would cost upwards of $350,000.