Ag industry testing driverless trucks to solve labor shortage

Two trucks drive on a road, their trailers filled with sugar beets
The lead truck and follow truck, part of a pilot program to test autonomous vehicles, haul a load of sugar beets to their destination at the Minn-Dak Farmers Cooperative in Wahpeton, N.D., on Tuesday. Due to technology problems, both trucks were being manually driven by human operators.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

When farmer members of Minn-Dak Farmers Cooperative harvest sugar beets in October, millions of tons of beets are stockpiled at the factory and at seven remote sites across two counties.

Over the next six months the beets grown by more than 100 farmers are hauled to the factory in Wahpeton, N.D., to be sliced and cooked to extract the sugar.

“Our drivers put on just shy of 3 million miles every single season. They put on enough miles to circumnavigate the globe 100 times,” said Minn-Dak Vice President of Agriculture and Research Mike Metzger, as he drove to one of the temporary storage sites.

A man stands in front of a trailer full of beets
Minn-Dak Farmers Cooperative Vice President Mike Metzger stands in front of a delivery bay in Wahpeton, N.D., on Tuesday.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Minn-Dak employs about 70 full and part time drivers to keep 18 semi-trailer trucks running around the clock. But the company plans to expand sugar beet production, and truck drivers are getting harder to find.

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“If we can haul more beets and keep the same number of drivers that we have, that would be an ideal world,” said Metzger.

So the cooperative partnered with a company called Kratos Defense to test what’s called platooning. A leader truck driven by a human is followed 300 feet back by a driverless truck.

“Where the leader goes the follower does exactly that. And when he swerves to miss a pothole, that follower misses the same pothole. It’s pretty cool,” said Metzger.

A display and control panels in a truck's cabin
The Kratos M-PAK User Interface sits in the cab of the autonomous follow vehicle at the Minn-Dak Farmers Cooperative in Wahpeton, N.D., on Tuesday.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

The trucks use some of the technology developed by Kratos Defense for use in remotely piloted military aircraft.

The drivers jokingly call them “the princess trucks” because the antenna array above the cab looks like a crown and makes the trucks easy to spot as they roll down the highway.

The follow truck is also loaded with sensors to collect data from every angle, and each system has a backup.

“We have a significant amount of redundancy built into the system,” explained Kratos Unmanned Systems Vice President for Business Development Maynard Factor. “We have redundant navigation systems, we have redundant communication systems. We have redundant safety systems, we have redundant braking actuators. The idea is to not have any single point of failure that could cause a more drastic mishap.”

A large truck begins tipping its load of beets
A sugar beet hauling truck prepares to unload its haul at the Minn-Dak Farmers Cooperative in Wahpeton, N.D., on Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2023.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Kratos is currently deploying the platoon technology with 16 highway maintenance departments including MnDOT and the North Dakota DOT and in three projects involving semi-trailer trucks, according to Factor.

The Minn-Dak Farmers Cooperative project has achieved several firsts, said Factor; including the northernmost deployment of an autonomous 18-wheeler in the U.S., and the first such use in an agricultural industry.

A little stressful

All of the systems are being pushed to their limits by the round the clock use and the harsh climate.

While safe, reliable technology is the focus, the lead driver in a platoon matchup is the ultimate backup, with full control over the follower truck.

Being responsible for two trucks rolling down the highway at 60 miles an hour can get intense, said driver John Avery.

The 74-year-old Avery volunteered to be a lead truck driver. He stops to talk while his truck is being unloaded at the factory.

“It’s a little stressful, but not bad. And the more you do it, the easier it gets,” he said

A man stands next to a processing plant
Truck driver John Avery, 74, stands in the loading yard at the Minn-Dak Farmers Cooperative in Wahpeton, N.D., on Tuesday.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Avery has driven trucks for 50 years and he’s energized by the challenge of learning this developing technology.

“When I first learned to drive I couldn’t wait to go driving again, and that’s the way it is now,” he said. “I just love it.”

Since this is still a pilot project, the follower truck is required to have a person in the driver seat.

Jason Heitkamp’s job is to sit there for 12 hours, alert but hands off.

“When I drive, I have the armrest set just right so that my hand is about an inch off the steering wheel and about an inch off the idle button,” Heitkamp explained.

His reaction time has even been tested. He can grab the wheel in less than half a second.

A man speaks as he stands next to a hauling truck
Follow vehicle driver Jason Heitkamp, 58, speaks with MPR News reporter Dan Gunderson at the Minn-Dak Farmers Cooperative in Wahpeton, N.D., on Tuesday.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

“You have to be vigilant the whole day. But the trucks have done nothing but work great,” he said.

The autonomous truck pair ran a few test routes back in March, and has been running every day since the October harvest.

Heitkamp said there have been no mishaps or close calls.

The future is inevitable

But there are challenges. On the day I visited, an electronic part in the follower truck failed so the autonomous driving system was shut off for safety reasons.

Metzger reminds himself and others this is still a research project.

“In the shop it's like ‘yep, we got it,’ we’re patting ourselves on the back,” he said. “[Then] we take them outside and link up and half mile down the road ... you know. It’s a machine and machines break. And back in the shop we go, and that gets to be a little bit disheartening.”

Still, Metzger is sold on the potential of this technology to improve the efficiency of the sugar beet industry.

A sensor arrow mounted on the grill of a truck
A sensor array is seen mounted on the front grill of the follow truck at the Minn-Dak Farmers Cooperative in Wahpeton, N.D., on Tuesday.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

But there are also regulatory hurdles. The autonomous truck has a state waiver to drive on North Dakota roads, but doesn't have permission to drive in Minnesota.

Since 70 percent of the cooperatives sugar beets are grown in Minnesota, Metzger said the autonomous trucks won’t make economic sense for the cooperative if they can’t drive on the other side of the state line.

Minnesota law currently allows platooning of trucks only on freeways or expressways with a permit from the Department of Transportation. A MnDOT spokesperson said a change in state law will be needed to allow the trucks on other highways.

Kratos Vice President Maynard Factor said the company still hopes to get permission to at least test the technology on rural Minnesota roads.

“We may be able to get some waivers in the near term to do some runs for an evaluation,” he said. “But ultimately, at some point, there will have to be a legislative update.”

A birds-eye view of a sugar beet truck
A sugar beet hauling truck prepares to unload its haul at the Minn-Dak Farmers Cooperative in Wahpeton, N.D., on Tuesday.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Kratos will be working with lawmakers in Minnesota and North Dakota to open more roads to autonomous trucks.

“The future is inevitable,” said Factor. “There will be driverless technology on the roadways and what we’re doing is pioneering this and we’re enabling the future with data and information for how we can deploy these trucks in the safest most reliable way possible.”

Minn-Dak Vice President Mike Metzger is hopeful that by next harvest season the company can deploy more trucks without drivers.