Do self driving tractors replace the need for a farmer on board?Google’s self-driving car got a lot of attention on Aug. 5, 2011. After being on the road accident-free for almost a year, it caused an accident. The ironic part was that it was on manual mode when the accident occurred. The Google car uses everything from laser range-finders to cameras that allow features for auto-park, adaptive cruise control and autonomous accident-avoidance systems to truly become an “auto” mobile—freeing the driver behind the wheel.

Though the self-driving car is still in its early stages, agriculture is taking advantage of the concept and is ahead of the curve with its hands-free and self-driving tractors. Take for example John Deere’s auto-steering tractor that uses a combination of GPS and ground base stations to maneuver trips up and down the field.

The self-driving tractors available today do require minimal human operation, but the driver can still take the time that used to be focused on steering and use it to perform other tasks while on board.

In a normal workday I spend about one and a half hours in the car driving to and from work. That adds up to seven and a half hours a week, or about 390 hours a year. That is a lot of time I could be doing something other than looking at the plates of the car in front of me, like watching my DVR, surfing the Internet or catching up on some much needed sleep—not really productive … I know.

Just imagine what a farmer could be doing with the time saved instead of concentrating on the route—like monitoring seeding rates, checking the yield monitor, working on another farm project or … texting? Paired with sub-inch accuracy, these auto-steering tractors have a natural ability to aid in multitasking, reduce waste caused by overlapping, decrease drive times, and with good driving algorithms—improve fuel efficiency.

Self-driving cars and tractors are still controversial for many reasons such as assuring the accuracy of routes, personal safety or trusting artificial intelligence to make “a life-or-death-decision.” Personally, I believe that soon a self-driving car will become statistically safer than a human driver. Yes, humans still make better decisions than machines, but self-driving cars and tractors can maintain a constant level of alertness—something very difficult for humans to achieve when you factor in technology, fatigue and other distractions on the road or out in the field.

I often have debates with my friends whether we will see flying cars in our lifetime. I don’t see us being able to fly the cars ourselves since we seem to have enough problems driving in two dimensions, but if we were able to make an autonomous flying car it just may be possible. In the meantime, I’m going to watch for the next big leap in autonomous vehicle technology to come from the ag sector.