Sep 1, 2022
Industry decries Cal/OSHA decision against autonomous tractor maker

The agriculture industry is questioning a California regulatory agency’s unfavorable ruling against autonomous tractor maker Monarch Tractor. Many industry people consider the decision, which maintains 1970s farm machinery rules, a step backward for California agriculture.

Livermore, California-based Monarch manufactures the world’s first electric, driverless tractor.

California’s Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board (Cal/OSHA) ruled against Monarch, which in December petitioned to update agricultural equipment regulations. Monarch CEO Praveen Penmetsa requested Cal/OSHA allow for the use of driver-optional tractors without a human operator at the vehicular controls within a strict set of safety guidelines. Cal/OSHA made its ruling in late June.

“It’s a little bit disconcerting the Cal/OSHA standards board can’t seem to understand the technology is here,” said Bryan Little, director of employment policy for the California Farm Bureau Federation. “The problem with the regulations we have is that they were created at a time when no one had really conceived of driverless autonomous equipment,” he said. “The Seventies called. They want driverless tractor regulations back. It’s time to move our regulatory position out of the era of pork chop sideburns and bell bottoms. It’s time to move on.”

The regulations governing the operation of agricultural equipment are outdated and have not kept up with ongoing farm machinery technology advancements, Penmetsa argued. “This specific section of Title 8 regulation dates back to the 1970s and has not been altered in the fifty or so years since it entered into law,” he wrote. “Furrow-guided driverless tractors were the primary type of automatic equipment that were in use when this regulation was first instituted. Without an operator stationed on the furrow-guided tractor, humans within the equipment’s path were at risk of injury or death because the equipment had no way to detect them or stop itself.

Little said nobody wants unsafe equipment to be deployed in California agricultural workplaces, but smart production equipment is already working in the fields. He points to Salinas, California, and Monterey County, where autonomous vehicles that resemble bugs move through the fields thinning and weeding lettuce.

“With today’s highly advanced autonomy technologies, driverless tractors are an entirely different machine from their twentieth and early twenty first-century counterparts,” Penmetsa argued. “Now, the driverless features of tractors and agricultural equipment are powered by sensors, computers, and advanced artificial intelligence.”

The equipment can safely operate without a human operator physically stationed on or in the equipment. “It is unclear whether autonomous software operating automated machinery meets the operator standard, which has created confusion and ambiguity throughout the farming industry and among machinery manufacturers who are already deploying advanced technologies,” Penmetsa wrote.

While only Monarch has been issued an experimental temporary variance allowing it to operate in a driver-optional mode, other manufacturers are testing or deploying in California. “The combination of the regulation being ambiguous, the labor shortage, and growing demand for alternate solutions has increased the utilization of autonomous and semi-autonomous technologies by growers in order to carry out farming functions, including pesticide spraying and other potentially hazardous operations,” Penmetsa wrote. “With demand for the technology high and the market moving fast, today’s regulations need to catch up quickly.”

“We need to figure a way that we can deploy this technology for everyone, be productive for employers and safe for employees,” Little said. “The hesitancy to even talk about it in any kind of serious way is really interesting, and alarming. Here we are in California, we are supposed to be leading the nation in new technology, but we don’t want to have that conversation at all because a handful of workers advocates say no.”

Cal/OSHA’s board directed its staff to monitor the status of Monarch’s variance and request periodic updates on its progression. The board stated beginning rulemaking at this juncture would be premature and that the older rules are not ambiguous. Following completion of the variance process, the board anticipates considering if the technologies require new or modified regulations.

The California Farm Bureau was part of 30 organizations of farm groups and equipment manufacturers supporting Monarch’s request. Those include Western Growers Association, the California Fresh Fruit Association, the California Association of Winegrape Growers, the California Strawberry Commission, California Apple Commission, California Blueberry Commission, American Pistachio Growers, California Walnut Commission and the Western Agricultural Processors Association.

Penmetsa remains committed to advancing autonomous equipment. “While an approval 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,” he said in a news release. “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.”

Photo: The agriculture industry is questioning a California regulatory agency’s unfavorable ruling against autonomous tractor maker Monarch Tractor.

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