January 2, 2023

How California Let Arizona Take the Driver’s Seat When It Comes to Using Autonomous Farm Vehicles

California is the top agriculture-producing state in the U.S., according to the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture. But when it comes to autonomous vehicle ecosystem superiority, Arizona has not only taken a front seat—it’s also become the driver. The state has deployed a pro-business approach that has made it the hub for businesses in autonomous technology—and it’s now enjoying all the spoils that come along with it.

Arizona made its move early on to embrace new technology platforms when Gov. Doug Ducey stopped a sting operation on rideshare drivers at the 2015 Super Bowl in Phoenix shortly after being elected. Instead, Arizona legalized autonomous ridesharing, fostering an environment where officials have worked with industry to balance the competing interests of innovation and regulation, collaborating to solve challenges as they come up. The result? Arizona has become the hub for dozens of autonomous vehicle companies, including Waymo, Lyft and Uber. This, in turn, has laid the groundwork for the use of autonomous vehicles for agriculture.

At a time when the industry is facing labor shortages, increased costs of doing business, water shortages and environmental concerns, California needs to ensure the success of the agriculture industry by welcoming innovation. Walt Duflock, VP of Innovation for Western Growers, explained that while Arizona embraces this technology, California is at risk of losing its competitive edge by evading it and pushing companies to Arizona. “It makes sense, because the market is there, and the Arizona market is a lot friendlier for the companies developing it,” he said.

Ducey’s open-for-business approach is an excellent example of the impact embracing and adapting to new technologies can have on the world. “When you’re recognized as the autonomous ecosystem leader, all the benefits coming from the tech world flow toward your ecosystem hub in tech and agtech. Arizona is working hard to deliver these economic benefits for their state and the Greater Phoenix to Yuma corridor,” Duflock said.

While some see California limiting innovation and change with its bureaucracy and over-regulation, Arizona’s hands-off approach has encouraged many of the businesses to establish their operations in Arizona. Companies including Google, Uber and Ford have fought California lawmakers on self-driving regulations. They felt some of the rule requirements, specifically with reporting on the number of times a driverless car switched from autonomous mode to human-driven mode, can give misleading impressions when it comes to safety.

Earlier this year, the agriculture industry in the state of California was dealt a major setback when California’s Occupational Safety & Health Standards Board (OSHSB) denied a petition by Monarch Tractor, maker of fully electric, driver-optional tractors, to amend the state labor code that would “allow for the use of driver-optional tractors without a human operator stationed at the vehicular controls within a strict set of safety guidelines.”

Cal/OSHA cited that there wasn’t enough evidence in the hearing to determine if autonomous equipment was safe. A similar petition, brought forward by the Association of Equipment Manufacturers (AEM) in 2019, was also denied by Cal/OSHA for many of the same reasons.

As a result, in the state of California, manufacturers must obtain a special permit to operate autonomous equipment. Monarch Tractor was granted a temporary variance in 2021 to allow its autonomous tractors to operate without onboard drivers. At the time of the petition, Monarch Tractor revealed that its technology “operated 760 hours with zero incidents of any kind.”

The current labor code, which was written in the 1970s, states that “all self-propelled equipment shall, when under its own power and in motion, have an operator stationed at the vehicular controls.” Monarch’s proposed amendment suggested that current regulations were outdated, ambiguous and didn’t accommodate emerging technologies of the 21st century.

Proponents of this technology agree that autonomous equipment can bring tremendous opportunities for the agriculture industry, including sustainability, food quality and even improved safety for farmworkers. One can even consider some autonomous equipment would allow growers to operate their fields 24/7 and improve productivity.

“If you look at the types of equipment, it’s my understanding that manufacturers are looking at the types of applications that are the most dangerous for a worker, and they’re creating the autonomy where it makes the most sense, where you’re removing a worker from danger and replacing it with autonomy and reducing safety concerns,” said Joani Woelfel, President and CEO at Far West Equipment Dealers Association (FWEDA), an advocacy group for equipment dealers in the states of Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming.

But there are many people who are familiar with the issue who feel that lack of safety data isn’t the issue, but rather the concern comes from labor. According to Woelfel, the only way around that concern is through education and engagement. “Unless the industry invites labor, regulators and legislators to participate and engage in this process, they’ll have a hard time getting them on board,” Woelfel said.

In November, Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema toured JV Smith Farms in Yuma, hosted by Western Growers member and former Board Chair Vic Smith, CEO of JV Smith Companies, for a chance to see cutting-edge technologies used by farmers in the field. Woelfel agrees that more of this needs to happen to increase education.

“If the industry really made a concerted effort to engage legislators and regulators, similar to Sinema’s visit, and get them out there more, we’re happy to facilitate. Sometimes it’s just about connecting all the appropriate parties together to start that conversation,” Woelfel said.

Naturally, as technology evolves, there are some concerns about automation replacing workers. But many in the industry see automation as an opportunity to create more jobs.

“The way I see it, California may have just walked away from thousands of great paying, high-tech jobs in the motor vehicle industry generally and the agriculture industry specifically,” Duflock said. “We’re missing out on jobs that support the design, development, sales and maintenance of equipment, even when California still has a lead in the early R&D stages for many of the new autonomous vehicle companies. There are engineering needs up and down the stack. We have to look at it as an opportunity—what’s being created is new jobs and greater opportunities for workers. In turn, farms can become more profitable and successful and create new jobs.”

Woelfel explained that when it comes to automation, it still involves people—but with a different set of skills as well as a need to change the way we educate up-and-coming workers. “What these workers do is very different, so the industry needs to work together to identify the skills needed to work the equipment and improve their skills,” she said.

But until we engage with and educate decisionmakers and labor and improve the messaging on safety, things will be slow to progress. Western Growers will continue supporting its members and the industry, through the Western Growers Center for Innovation and Technology (WGCIT), to move toward market adoption and get funding and scale.

“We need to make sure their roadmap makes sense, and their economic model makes sense for the growers, and once they do a field trial, we need to spread the word and educate growers that there’s an opportunity to make a change,” Duflock said. In the meantime, California will have to continue to sit in the backseat while Arizona drives the ecosystem of autonomous technology that advances the industry.

“Autonomy is coming. It’s a major growth area and tech driver and will push the industry forward. California can only lead if it doesn’t over-regulate, and if we don’t change course, Arizona will continue in its current leadership position,” Duflock said.