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Calif.’s ongoing ban of autonomous tractors a significant setback


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Karl Wente receives new Monarch Tractor

Wente winemaker Karl Wente received the first production tractor from Monarch Tractors. | Credit: Mike Oitzman

Monarch Tractor, maker of fully electric, driver-optional tractors, has been working with Cal/OSHA to amend Title 8, Section 3441(b) to clarify the use of driver-optional tractors without a human operator stationed on the vehicle, within a strict set of safety guidelines. Unfortunately, its efforts have yet to enact any change.

Cal/OSHA denied Monarch’s petition (PDF) by a 4:3 vote. Cal/OSHA denied a similar Petition 571 brought by the Association of Equipment Manufacturers in 2019. In its proposed amendment, Monarch Tractor suggested that current regulations, which originated in the 1970s, are outdated and ambiguous as they don’t take into account ongoing 21st century autonomous technology advances.

The current regulations state “all self-propelled equipment shall, when under its own power and in motion, have an operator stationed at the vehicular controls.” Despite the ruling, Cal/OSHA and Monarch Tractor continue to work closely under a temporary experimental variance to gather data and clarify the safety regulations and establish a process with key milestones for the tech providers to follow specifically in farm environments where autonomous equipment is expected to work in close proximity to farm workers.

A path forward?

This decision by the regulatory agency is a setback for the entire autonomous agriculture industry, Monarch just happens to be one of the companies who are at the leading edge of this evolution in agriculture technology. The decision will impact the ability of all other autonomous agriculture providers. John Deere is likely the highest-profile player in this space. It unveiled its 8R autonomous tractor, which features six pairs of stereo cameras but doesn’t use LiDAR, at CES 2022.

For a company like Monarch, the decision from California is especially poignant as Monarch is the first all-electric, autonomous tractor to come to market. Monarch has worked closely with the California Air Resources board to get grants for several of its early customers to help defray the cost of pilot projects throughout the state.

“Monarch continues to advocate for the farmer and ensure access to the latest technology that will increase farm worker safety. The tractor driver seat is one of the most dangerous places on small farms with exposure to chemicals, harsh elements and equipment issues including implements,” said Praveen Penmetsa, co-founder & CEO, Monarch Tractor. “While an approval today would have expedited the regulation process and reduced paperwork and data sharing burden for Monarch and other OEMs, this ruling simply underscores that there is more work to be done under our current Cal/OSHA variance process and as the leader in farm automation technology, we will continue to work with Cal/OSHA on use cases where autonomous equipment is in close proximity to workers.”

Monarch Tractor will continue the deployment of its electric, driver-optional tractor, as well as continuing to work with farm and equipment partners to raise questions that will offer regulatory clarity. Continuing to shine a light on ambiguous, outdated regulations will ensure that the doors are always open to innovation, advancement, and progress in agriculture.

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