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The autonomous tractor is a reality, but what about legal liability?

From a technical perspective, the necessary components to make a tractor autonomous are available. - Photo: Koos Groenewold
From a technical perspective, the necessary components to make a tractor autonomous are available. - Photo: Koos Groenewold

Autonomous tractors are driving across the fields. Liability issues related to safety are making large manufacturers particularly cautious.

It has been talked about and dreamed about for a long time: the autonomous tractor. A tractor that can perform its work without a driver. From a technical perspective, the necessary components to make a tractor autonomous are available, and fully autonomous tractors are already operating in the fields. However, a true breakthrough has not yet occurred. Part of the reason is that in practice, it’s more challenging than it may seem on paper.

Legal regulations for autonomous tractors

But in addition to the question of how far the technology has advanced, there is always the question of the legal regulations surrounding the use of autonomous vehicles in agriculture. Legal liability is a significant reason why manufacturers are still hesitant to introduce especially heavier autonomous vehicles like agricultural tractors. Future Farming delved into the matter and found that, in principle, the law does not prevent their application, but covering the risk for suppliers presents a substantial challenge, one that they often struggle to overcome and where there is also considerable uncertainty.

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AgXeed manufactures fully autonomous vehicles designed for autonomous use, taking over the work of a medium-sized agricultural tractor. The robot version, in relative terms, accomplishes more work as it doesn't need to pause or stop for rest. - Photo: Martin Smits.
AgXeed manufactures fully autonomous vehicles designed for autonomous use, taking over the work of a medium-sized agricultural tractor. The robot version, in relative terms, accomplishes more work as it doesn't need to pause or stop for rest. - Photo: Martin Smits.

The autonomous tractor: Anything is allowed as long as it’s safe

There are no legal regulations for working with autonomous vehicles, and there is no inspection or certification that declares an autonomous vehicle safe to work with. It is also not specified anywhere that it is not allowed to work with autonomous vehicles. This doesn’t mean it’s a free-for-all, as Philipp Kamps, product manager at AgXeed, explains. AgXeed is a young Dutch company that now has 40 AgBots operating worldwide, which are fully autonomous 156 hp diesel-electric vehicles on tracks or a 75 hp wheel-based version as an alternative to a conventional tractor.

Machinery Directive

Every machinery manufacturer is required to adhere to the Machinery Directive, which is an European regulation that also gives rise to the CE marking. If an autonomous vehicle complies with the Machinery Directive, it can be delivered and used. Because our autonomous vehicle only operates in the field or on the farm and does not travel on public roads, with a maximum speed of 15 kilometers per hour, safety considerations become somewhat simpler, as Kamps explains.

If you want to drive on public roads, it falls under a type approval process to obtain a license plate (Dutch situation), and it’s not just a challenge for tractors but also in the automotive world, where there are still questions about whether the vehicle is truly safe and who is willing to take responsibility in case of an accident.

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One of the modifications to make a standard tractor safely autonomous is using steel cables to actuate the brake pedal when the electronics apply the brakes. - Photo: Koos Groenewold.
One of the modifications to make a standard tractor safely autonomous is using steel cables to actuate the brake pedal when the electronics apply the brakes. - Photo: Koos Groenewold.

CE certification for an autonomous tractor

An autonomous vehicle operating in the field should be CE-certified, but the CE marking, as evidence of the manufacturer’s declaration that the machine complies with the Machinery Directive, is a system of self-certification. It’s like the butcher inspecting his own meat, and in the case of the Machinery Directive, this means that when accidents occur, the manufacturer may be called to account to prove that they rightly assigned the CE marking to their product. For a manufacturer taking this seriously for an autonomous vehicle, it marks the beginning of a very extensive and complex process.

Mandatory Risk Analysis

The Machinery Directive focuses on safety and includes a mandatory risk analysis. The way this is organized is reminiscent of the process an aircraft manufacturer goes through to certify an aircraft as airworthy. The risk analysis results in a ‘Performance Level’ based on several weighting factors, which is expressed as a letter A through E.

Read also: UK takes the lead in autonomous ag-operations with Introduction of Code of Practice

A signifies that due to low risk, no stringent requirements are imposed. E indicates the highest demand for safety. It is up to the manufacturer to determine which systems are necessary to ensure an adequate level of safety. Compiling this information is a massive task and not something that can be easily completed using a template or checklist. This is precisely the point where many suppliers struggle: how can I obtain well-documented evidence that, in the event of a serious accident with an autonomous tractor, there is no fault attributed to me as the supplier?

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There are now dozens of robotic vehicles in various forms available on the market, mostly focused on specialized and caregiving tasks. The first universally deployable conventional tractors are theoretically available, but uncertainty regarding legal liability is still impeding a breakthrough. - Photo: Martin Smits.
There are now dozens of robotic vehicles in various forms available on the market, mostly focused on specialized and caregiving tasks. The first universally deployable conventional tractors are theoretically available, but uncertainty regarding legal liability is still impeding a breakthrough. - Photo: Martin Smits.

Waiting for a clear ISO standard

“We‘ve also delved deep into the matter,” says Hans Biemans on behalf of Duch company iQuus. “We adhere to the Machinery Directive with a CE-certified obstacle protection system. But what we‘re really waiting for is something like a clear ISO standard specifically designed for autonomous vehicles in agriculture. The current legislation isn’t adequately prepared for this.”

This is a reason why major tractor manufacturers, being risk-averse, remain cautious about introducing autonomous tractors. This issue is global, although autonomous vehicles are already operating in many parts of the world. However, states like California are very hesitant, and the ‘Occupational Safety & Health Standards Board’ temporarily banned certain autonomous vehicles there in March last year.

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Smits
Martin Smits Machinery writer





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