Transportation has come a long way from the days of horse-drawn carriages. In fact, the next great frontier in transport, known as autonomous driving, is already here. Self-driving vehicles are being deployed on public roads and highways across the United States today, as everyone from major automakers to tech companies battles for a piece of this emerging market. Audi's driverless A7 sedan successfully completed a two-day, 550-mile road trip from San Francisco to Las Vegas earlier this year, while Google's self-driving cars can be seen cruising the California streets on a regular basis these days.
However, self-driving vehicles and related digital data technology are transforming more than just the auto industry. The tech is also upending the agricultural industry, and perhaps to a greater extent. In fact, you'll probably be surprised to learn that Google and Tesla Motors currently take a backseat to tractor maker Deere & Company (NYSE:DE) in the autonomous vehicle revolution. That's right, John Deere is, in fact, the largest producer of self-driving four-wheeled vehicles in the United States.
More connected equipment
Believe it or not, John Deere is evolving into a tech company these days, with thousands of employees whose sole job it is to write software. The company's tractors are no longer the dumb clunky metal giants they were decades ago, but rather intelligent machines that can wirelessly relay data back to farmers in real time. Using Deere's data management software, JDLink, farmers can track machine locations, secure machines to certain areas through geofencing, and monitor fuel usage, all from their mobile devices. JDLink is now available in 48 countries.
Using satellites and global positioning software, tractors can drive themselves and execute tasks such as planting seeds, while farmers can focus on other concerns like analyzing the data that is simultaneously being collected by the equipment. One of the reasons that self-driving technology has caught on faster in the agricultural space versus the consumer market is because fewer regulations exist.
While many of Deere's self-driving tractors, such as its AutoTrac fleet, suggest having an operator in the cab during use, it isn't at all necessary or legally required. In fact, U.S. federal rules governing autonomous tractors or farming gear do not currently exist. This is likely because most farming tech is used on private property, unlike the public roads that Google's self-driving cars traverse today.
Autonomous vehicles will undoubtedly continue to thrive in the agricultural market. However, going forward it's actually advances in data collection and management technology that should set Deere apart from rivals in the space. In fact, many argue that this technology "could be as important as the development of mechanized tractors in the first half of the 20th century and the rise of genetically modified seeds in the 1990s," according to The Wall Street Journal.
Gone are the days of running a farm with paper forms and Excel spreadsheets. New data collection systems that wirelessly communicate with equipment such as tractors offer farmers a streamlined way of efficiently collecting and analyzing massive amounts of data on everything from soil conditions to water usage to crop chemistry.
Deere's dominance in autonomous four-wheeled vehicles and its ongoing investments in digital software and precision farming equipment should help the company continue to lead the agriculture and forestry market for many years to come. The stock is currently trading near the high end of its 52-week range, at around $93 today. Nevertheless, the shares still look reasonably priced from a valuation standpoint. Moreover, the stock's price-to-sales ratio of 0.95 is markedly below the industry average P/S of 1.62. This means investors are paying roughly $0.95 for every $1 of sales today. Bottom line: Deere looks like a safe long-term bet for investors.