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Concept tractor offers plenty of new ideas

New Holland showed off a stunning concept vehicle recently with a focus on renewable fuels; we liked the cab

Concept vehicles are great. As a gear head, I enjoy seeing new ideas from engineers brought forth in far flung designs that still maintain an air of potential reality. Car companies do that all the time, tractor companies not so much...except for New Holland.

The company, which prides itself on being a clean energy innovator has taking the Farm Progress Show as an opportunity to show off fuel cell tractors, electric tractors and more. This year, the company brought its third-generation methane tractor to the show. I saw a second-generation prototype in Italy a few years ago and frankly this new third-generation machine is an example of 'doubling down' on design.

While earlier prototypes were almost jury rigged T6 machines with added tanks, this methane prototype rethought a wide range of design cues. From the outside, this is definitely not your Daddy's New Holland machine. From its sleek hood (which provides excellent forward visibility) to a range of styling choices that probably won't see the real world, New Holland showed off its design chops.

And as the show wound down I connected with Mark Howell, global product manager. I was standing outside the machine (and had asked if anyone had a key). Howell walked up a few minutes later, brandished a blue key and said: "Do you want to sit in the cab?" Who wouldn't?

So, as I sat in the cab and talked with Howell, we diverged from alternative fuels to design. And while the idea of producing your own tractor fuel on the farm may appeal to livestock producers in Europe, it'll be some time before methane tractors are doing chore work in the U.S.

Yet a concept machine sometimes isn't about the 'main thing' it's also an exercise in engineering and experimentation. As I climbed into the cab, Howell quipped: "We probably won't have those custom cut aluminum steps in a final tractor."

Sitting in the cab (and the prototype was not outfitted with a cushioned, suspended seat), I got the view the operator would of the nose of the tractor. Howell noted that the nose 'enters' the cab with that distinctive blue color coming to the operator.

And while interest in renewable fuels may have been the starter for the concept, the key takeaway is that cab. The operator environment for farm equipment hasn't seen huge changes other than larger spaces, and evolving monitor locations. For this machine, New Holland rethought the idea of the display, and its location as well as the creation of a wraparound glass operator environment.

I've got a slideshow with this blog to better show you the different features. But two things to look at.

First, the three-panel monitor to the right of the operator offers ultimate display flexibility. In concept form, it's even possible to move the key display to the second location (more on that in moment) by simply "pinching it" on one screen and "unpinching" at the second screen.

The three-screen display, which is web enabled in the concept, provides you ultimate viewing, including a 360 camera (which I've had on my sport utility vehicle for several years) that gives you a bird's eye view of your location. One screen pulls in weather and markets and the other has machine information. And any display can use any input, which is where designers must go anyway. With all the information available that widescreen monitor is handy.

The other monitor's location caught a lot of people's attention. The in-steering wheel location provides you easy access to information without having to move much. And you can customize that display too. Short of having a heads-up display right on the front windshield, this location offers potential to many.

"Some users, who are more used to driving trucks, noted to us that they would be covering that monitor up with their arms during operation, so it wouldn't be so easy see," Howell notes. It's a concept vehicle, where ideas are shared, the final could be something completely different.

One other feature of the tractor was the multi-function joystick, which is programmable. Howell pointed out that the concept vehicle's joystick is already on the newest T6 tractor, it's real-world tech.

The other fuel

"For the U.S. market, the vehicle that may make the most sense is the propane-powered tractor," Howell added. It didn't have a concept look, instead being shown in the guise of a T6 on the exhibit stand. Yet a closer look shows the intake for propane fuel.

Cinch Munson, Propane Education Research Council, noted that his organization has worked with New Holland on the tractor. "Propane fuel has potential," he noted. "But for many it may be in the municipal uses rather than on the farm."

New Holland has a significant presence in the municipal, county, city vehicle market, where administrators are looking to manage fuel costs, lower their carbon footprint and get cleaner emissions. For them propane is a choice, and the T6 propane prototype has potential for that market. Yet farmers may find propane a useful alternative fuel as well. That remains to be seen.

Check out the slideshow to see images from inside the cab, and some more thoughts on this concept vehicle.

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