The Productivity Problem: A Really Long Editorial

I like searching the internet for other people who are making autonomous lawn mowers. You can learn a lot by seeing how others are approaching the problem. Over the years, I’ve found several folks who’ve made great progress. Yet everywhere I look I still see people on riding mowers cutting their grass the same old-fashioned way. What gives?

When I started the mower project, the problem I was solving seemed blindingly obvious. Mowing is unpleasant to do personally and expensive to hire out. Let’s build a machine that mows a lawn without a human. It will sell itself!

Both Greenzie and Mowbotix did just that. They built machines that can mow huge fields with great precision. Why haven’t they conquered the lawn care industry with their cutting-edge technology? The answer, in my humble opinion, has nothing to do with the maturity or sophistication of their technology. It has everything to do with productivity.

If you think back to economics 101, you’ll recall that productivity is the amount of output you get for a given input. For an autonomous lawn mower to be successful in the marketplace, it has to not only remove the operator from the machine but increase productivity while doing so.

Joe’s Mowing Company.

And therein lies the problem. To illustrate, imagine a fictitious Joe’s Lawn Care company, who is using standard lawn care technology available today. A typical day for Joe would go something like this:

  1. Joe drives to the job site he needs to mow.
  2. He unloads his mower, hops on, and starts cutting grass.
  3. When he’s finished, he loads the mower back on the trailer and drives to the next job site.
  4. He repeats steps 1 through 3 until he’s finished with the day’s work.

If Joe were to upgrade to an autonomous lawn mower, his day would look like this:

  1. Joe drives to the job site he needs to mow.
  2. He unloads his mower, opens his laptop, loads a mission, and starts cutting grass.
  3. When he’s finished, he loads the mower back on the trailer and drives to the next job site.
  4. He repeats steps 1 through 3 until he’s finished with the day’s work.

How much does an autonomous lawn mower improve Joe’s productivity? The answer: none. And that’s being generous.

Joe gets paid to be out there monitoring the autonomous lawn mower, even if he’s sitting in the truck sipping iced tea while it cuts the grass. He still needs to transport the mower to the job site, unload, and load it. In this light, an autonomous lawn mower doesn’t reduce Joe’s labor costs at all. In fact, it probably increases them because the setup time at each job site will be longer than the time it takes to hop on a riding mower.

And on top of that, an autonomous lawn mower will likely cost much more than a typical riding mower. To give you an idea of how much, I’ll direct you here and here. Essentially, Greenzie and Mowbotix are asking you to bring them your existing mower, $5,000, and they’ll retrofit it for autonomy.

The worst part? To use their solution, you need to pay a significant monthly fee. Wasn’t the whole point of this exercise to get rid of the monthly fee, i.e. the wages you pay the guy to run mower? Talk about back to square one. If that’s how we’re going to market the solution I understand why autonomous lawn mowers haven’t caught on yet.

Framing this information in productivity terms, the inputs for an autonomous mower solution:

  1. Cost thousands of dollars more than an ordinary riding mower.
  2. Still require a worker to setup, monitor, and load up when finished.
  3. Require a significant monthly fee to operate.

On the output side, you get to use your same riding mower at the same speed to cut the same amount of grass as before. And that assumes it doesn’t take longer to get the autonomous mower up and running once you’re at the job site.

I’m going to be honest, this has been a tough post to write because the solution I’m working on suffers from many of these same issues. I don’t intend to disparage Greenzie or Mowbotix: both of them have way cooler robots that are much more robustly autonomous than mine.

But as they exist today, these autonomous mowing solutions, mine included, cost more than traditional lawn mowing technology and result in about the same level of output. We’ve been solving the wrong problem, or a very small part of a much bigger problem.

Removing the operator from the machine is a step in the right direction, but to truly increase lawn care productivity it’s going to take more than a mower that can drive itself. I will be doing some pondering on that over the next few days.

I’ll leave you with a quote I wish I’d found back when Rod sold me the electric wheel chair many years ago:

It doesn’t matter how fast you move if it’s in a worthless direction. Picking the right thing to work on is the most important element of productivity and usually almost ignored. So think about it more!

Sam Altman

Please leave your thoughts below. I’d love to hear them!

7 thoughts on “The Productivity Problem: A Really Long Editorial

  1. Good thoughts. It seems to me like anything with an operator driving out just to start an autonomous lawnmower is going to be a productivity failure, for all the points you mention. To solve this problem I think it would need to either be homeowner’s owning an individual autonomous mower or some sort of fleet of mowers that a business can operate remotely, like perhaps they just drop off 10 in a neighborhood and one person can monitor all of them from inside his truck. It kind of looks like Husqvarna is anticipating that in their promo video for their new mower with RTK-GPS that they are releasing next year.

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  2. I agree with @Nick, productivity is gained by the number acres a single operator can cut within a time period. Having multiple robotic mowers at a large job site would be a big productivity gain. If those mowers could run autonomously on a schedule, then you have achieved the ultimate productivity.

    I spend 3.5 hours on average every week mowing lawn. I wanted a big yard but it came with a big responsibility. I would buy any mower that could cut my lawn, ruts and all, by itself safely and reliably. I started my robot mower project several years ago and recently I had time to reflect on the money and time I have spent on it. It still doesn’t cut the lawn without me there to observe it, so it can be considered a failure, but it isn’t. I love working on the little rover and I do believe better commercial projects with come within the next few years. Even if they don’t, I think I am close to autonomous mower success. I just started working on the final piece, an ancillary flight safety system to pair with the flight controller. I call it “restraining bolt” https://github.com/bitdog-io/restraining_bolt/tree/pre-release.

    Your work and the work of our robot mower community at large is inspiring, thank you.

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  3. You make some valid points about how, for a robot, just being autonomous isn’t enough. It also has to be as-fast or faster than a human to be valuable. However, I think you miss two important aspects of the landscaping industry. The first is that most landscapers have crews of 2,3 or more people that do different tasks in parallel on each job site. They might have one person on a mower, one trimmer, and one cleanup for example. The other aspect is that landscaping is facing a sevear long-term labor shortage – they can’t easily hire more workers to do more jobs, even if there is ample demand for their services, so they want to make their existing crews more efficient.
    The value-proposition for robot “crewmembers” is that they can take over repetitive tasks, like mowing, freeing up the human crewmembers to do more other tasks in parallel. Now the same 3 people could do the work of a 4-person crew, with 1 robot mower, 2 people trimming, and 1 person cleanup, for example. It requires that the robot be autonomous enough that that the humans are only needed to load/unload it and “keep an eye” on it during operation. It also has to work on all their existing properties with no installation, setup or calibration.

    I think the reason Greenzie, Mowbotix, and others with similar retrofit business models haven’t taken off yet is the same reason early electric/autonomous cars didn’t take off. They aren’t redesigned from the ground up to be electric or autonomous. Auto manufacturers took existing models and stuffed batteries, electric motors, and computers in them, but the results were disappointing. Similarly, “robot mower” companies like these have to work with existing hardware which was designed for an entirely different use-case, so they aren’t reaching nearly the performance step increase that they potentially could. (I think you had a good post about this, comparing to fighter jets vs. drines.) Robot lawnmower today are like electric autonomous cars before Tesla came to the scene. Maybe Mean Green+Kobi will break through. They’re the only ones that have publically announced a commercial electric autonomous mower for landscapers (but even they drew heavily on their existing designs from their stand-on models.)

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  4. Like the previous post said the mowing companies rely on speed and volume to turn a profit, so they have multiple people working a crew to get more yards done a day. Labor cost is the biggest issue along with labor reliability. If a 3 man crew is short 1 guy, then they can’t complete as many jobs in a day. I’ve actually seen the Greenzie in the field, and your assumption about setup and deployment per property and how long that takes is based on your experience with ardupilot. Their system is much faster because they only have the rover and the RTK fix comes from NTRIP, part of what you are paying for in their monthly fee per kit is the cellular data to make that work. The properties are mapped the first time and after that they are stored, so they they just roll off the truck, acquire the signal, the operator can select the pattern to mow and the rest is on the mower to finish while someone edges. End to end the time per lawn isn’t much greater than the 3 man crew. Greenzie did a smart thing to enter the market as fast as possible knowing lawn companies weren’t going to have the capital to just go buy new mowers that incorporated this tech, otherwise they would be waiting a long time for people to retire mowers and then spend extra for this capability. Of course this type of technology is going to continue to infiltrate commercial brands, its pretty likely Greenzie will just get bought out by some company and will roll it into their products. I keep running the thought experiment about where lawn companies will exist if everyone can just own a small robot mower that does it all the time for them, but there is a huge part of the market currently that don’t want to weed eat around objects weekly, edge and blow off the surfaces, so that part of the operations would need to be automated before that market would leave behind the lawn services. While $1000 a month for a greenzie mower seems high, that is amortized over a lot of mowing for that vehicle and that pricing will change as more are adopted, plus the market for lawn services in Atlanta is huge and very competitive, so its not uncommon for these crews to be mowing 20+ lawns a day to capitalize on their labor expense. It’s really cool to see the industry changing.

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