Between 2009 and 2015, Google spent $1.1 billion on autonomous vehicles for its Waymo subsidiary, which have so far roamed more than 10 million miles of city streets — though none of those miles have yet involved a paying customer. Tesla, which builds the data collection it uses to improve its autonomous technology into every vehicle it sells, lost more than $1 billion as a company last year alone. In pursuit of viable self-driving cars, the companies have had to navigate a web of regulation that varies from state to state, apply for permits, and risk getting banned from roads if they fail to follow the rules. Neither of their self-driving technologies is ready to be set loose on public streets without a human safety driver behind the wheel or navigating previously approved routes.
But Zack James faced few barriers when he started his autonomous tractor company in 2017. His roughly 200-pound tractors are closer in size to a riding lawn mower (and about half the weight) than they are to traditional combines and sprayers, and the open metal frame vehicles work together in a swarm. After coming up with the concept while in law school at the University of Michigan, it took James about a month to fabricate the first prototype, which he soon tested on a family field in Crown Point, Indiana, standing by in case the tractor encountered an obstacle it couldn’t yet navigate.
Instead of sleek Teslas or robot Ubers, the first truly driverless vehicles are more likely to look like James’ tractors: rolling placidly over a cornfield at a max speed of 7 mph.
What James did not do before building and testing his prototype in the real world was raise a billion dollars. Or apply for a permit. Or consult ethicists about how to handle split-second decisions about whose life to save in case of an impending accident, otherwise known as the “trolley problem.” And yet — so far, so…