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From the highway to the field

If you want a glimpse of the future of tractors, check out your local auto dealer. The automotive industry is a bellwether for farm machinery because it has more dollars, from its bigger market and larger sales volume, to invest in research and development.

“One of the things you have to remember is the economy of scale in the automotive industry,” says Dr. Rolf Reitz, mechanical engineer at the University of Wisconsin — Madison. “They are making millions of units per year on the automotive production line versus hundreds of thousands of tractors made. So they can set the standard, whether it be for batteries, voltages that are used in automobiles, or oils that are specified for lubricating engines. They all really come from the automotive industry by virtue of their huge impact on the market.”

Tractor makers can then adopt the same technology and modify it for use on the farm for less money than if they had started from scratch.

We asked mechanical engineers from major automotive research centers to tell us about a few of the technologies from cars that are coming to tractors in the next five to 10 years. All of these technologies are available in certain specialty or luxury cars sold here or overseas, including high-end models from Toyota, Mercedes Benz and Mitsubishi.

And all have been made possible by advancements in computer electronics, such as on-board sensing, data-mining software, wireless networking and information screening technology.

Many of these examples are not stand-alone technologies. Rather, they work in concert and build on each other to make the whole vehicle more advanced.

So sit back, relax and enjoy the tractor ride of the future.


The Control Area Network (CAN) Bus from automobiles is already available in certain new model tractors introduced by the major tractor manufacturers in recent years.

CAN Bus is an electronic network linking different electronic devices that provide automated functions in cars, such as fuel injection, antilock brakes, auto lock and air-bag release, so they can operate together as one system, according to Dr. Qin Zhang, assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

“Before, separate controllers performed each function,” Zhang explains. “Now, with CAN Bus, you can make the whole vehicle and its electronic controls work as one system so they will collaborate much better and increase efficiency. And because the technology increases efficiency, it increases productivity and reduces cost.”

In tractors, the same technology is being used, for example, to control both engine speed and ground speed to increase the machine's fuel efficiency. “In the past, drivers would set the tractor engine at high idle all of the time regardless if they needed the power,” Zhang says. “Now, with CAN Bus, we can optimize engine speed and fuel consumption, and when we need more power, it will automatically increase the fuel injection. And when we do not need a lot of power, we can decrease the amount and set the engine at low idle instead of high idle all the time.”

The technology also is being used to vary rates of fertilizer applied to fields. By linking a laptop computer in the tractor cab to controllers and sprayer nozzles on the implement, CAN Bus allows a farmer to apply fertilizer at varied rates according to the nutrient needs of each area of the field.

Zhang expects that all new makes and models of tractors will eventually feature CAN Bus.

Machinery prognostics

Another borrowed technology from cars and made possible by CAN Bus is machinery prognostics. Unlike a preceding technology called machinery “diagnostics,” which mechanics use to diagnose an equipment malfunction after it occurs, machinery prognostics predicts an equipment failure beforehand by tracking the remaining wear life of parts and components. The information is transferred to the owner/operator so that he or she knows when to schedule maintenance checks and repairs.

Machinery prognostics will help farmers avoid breakdowns in the field at critical times such as harvest and planting, according to Zhang. He estimates that the technology will begin to appear in tractors in a couple of years and will be fully integrated in five.

Personal computer

PCs are a third technology from cars making their way to tractors. “Some farmers have already put a computer on a tractor themselves, but it will be standard equipment on the tractor in four or five years, maybe sooner,” Zhang predicts.

Once computers are integrated, a tractor will become less like a machine and more like a moving computer, he says. And the computer will make way for a fourth technology.


Infotronics is a concept introduced to the auto industry three or four years ago and will be available in tractors following the integration of standard computers, Zhang says. The technology provides a wireless link between the car and the World Wide Web so that drivers can both access and send information en route in real time.

In a car, for instance, a driver can open and send electronic mail or make dinner reservations at a restaurant in an upcoming town. In a tractor, an operator could use the same technology to check local weather and markets.

“For example, when you are fertilizing your fields, you can log onto the Weather Channel to see if a thunderstorm or shower is coming your way and, if so, how long it will be before it hits the area,” Zhang says.

“Or you may want to see what the market is right now. If the market is high, should I sell [my grain] right now or store it and sell later? This kind of information will be available on the Web some way.”

Tire inflation control

A mechanical technology that is new to cars and is coming to tractors is tire inflation control, which will automatically adjust tire inflation pressure according to varying load and field conditions.

“Basically, the tractor is driving at different load conditions,” Zhang explains. “For some loads, you need high tire pressure to make sure the tractor runs smoothly and at a high speed. For other applications, you want to lower tire inflation. The basic idea is to make sure the tractor will run smoothly in all kinds of fields and operating conditions. So instead of having one tire pressure all the time, you can control and optimize it.”

In-cylinder fuel injection

Finally, a technology available in some foreign cars, such as models made by Mitsubishi and Nissan, that is coming to U.S. cars and eventually tractors is in-cylinder fuel injection, also called GDI, according to the University of Wisconsin's Reitz.

“The technology available in today's U.S. cars is port fuel injection, where injection takes place outside the actual combustion chamber,” Reitz says. “But current technology in Japan, and in the very near future in this country, is in-cylinder injection where injection takes place right in the combustion chamber.”

The technology will make engines more responsive and fuel efficient, he says, because it allows for controlled mixing of fuel and air and it reduces the time it takes for fuel to enter the combustion chamber because fuel is directly inserted into the chamber.

“The estimate from Mitsubishi is that you can get a 5 to 10% increase in fuel efficiency by going to GDI,” Reitz says.

He anticipates the technology will be available in U.S. cars and tractors in about five years as engine manufacturers strive to meet new emission standards being set by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Tractors lead in GPS

Not all technologies coming to tractors originate in cars, points out Dr. Jim Bernard, a mechanical engineer at Iowa State University. In fact, in the area of Global Positioning System (GPS), which Bernard says is the most important technology coming to both cars and tractors, research in the farm segment is leading the way.

“I wouldn't say that people who make tractors are poor second cousins,” Bernard says. “They are awfully good. And they have economic incentives to make different applications using the same opportunity.”

In cars, for example, GPS provides drivers with a map that guides them to their destination. In tractors, on the other hand, it allows a driver to keep track of which part of a field needs more fertilizer and will ultimately allow equipment to run without a driver.

“The question is not just knowing where you are,” Beard says. “It is what you decide to do when you know where you are. And that will be evolving.”

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