- Dusty Sonnenberg
No Autonomy in Ag in California Anytime Soon
While autonomy is coming to agriculture, it will not be coming to California anytime soon. In June, California’s Occupational Safety & Health Standards Board rejected a petition that would have allowed what is termed “driver optional tractors” without an operator at the controls. This is the second time a petition like this has been denied by the standards board. Back in 2019, a similar petition was also rejected.
The most recent petition was filed by Monarch Tractor, which produces an all-electric autonomous tractor. Monarch currently has a temporary experimental variance to collect data and assist in clarifying safety regulations. The petition filed by Monarch Tractor said that current regulations, which originated in the 1970s, are outdated and ambiguous. The decision from the standards board stated that the current regulatory language does cover autonomous equipment. “Although the language does not specifically address modern self-driving tractors, this does not limit the applicability of the regulation to this type of equipment.”
The Association of Equipment Manufacturers filed a petition in 2019. Their petition supported using autonomous tractors in the interest of worker safety, increased efficiency, and over concerns of labor shortages. It was pointed out that autonomous tractors could operate safely 24 hours a day compared to human labor. It also stated that emerging technology would create sustainable career development opportunities.
Given the nature of California’s environmental and social concerns, the concept of an autonomous electric tractor provides multiple benefits. In a statement in the petition by Monarch Tractor, Praveen Penmetsa, CEO, stated, “Autonomous and driver-optional machinery provides a multitude of benefits for the agriculture industry, including improved air quality, sustainability, and food quality. One of the most tangible and significant benefits, however, is improved farm worker safety.”
The reasons for the denial were largely based on worker safety concerns by the California Occupational Safety & Health Standards Board. In their denial, the board stated that “the technology is still very new.” It also cited concerns that the dataset which was submitted to support the petition was too small. This is despite the fact that data from several other states that use the same technology from other manufacturers’ trials could be combined with Monarch's existing trial data to increase the confidence level.
The petition rejection could be considered a setback to the larger autonomous agriculture industry. John Deere, one of the most visible companies in this space, recently unveiled the 8R autonomous tractor. Several other players are also racing to develop the technology.
It also appears that union influence and labor concerns played a role in the decision to reject the petition. From a basis that seems unrelated to what the standards board was tasked to be making evaluations on, the standards board was criticized for not ensuring labor representation in Monarch’s trial, and a request was made for revisions to the temporary variance that require labor advocates to participate. Considering California’s powerful labor influence, changes are not expected anytime soon. The petition denial delays board action until 2026.
California Department of Industrial Relations, Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board, Petition File Number 596.