The Right Problem

When I mow my lawn, I spend five minutes putting on mowing clothes and walking out to the garage to grab the mower, and this experience has influenced the productivity solution I think the lawn care industry needs. The pain I experience involves pushing the mower. Lawn care companies, on the other hand, experience pain in a whole host of other areas. The two situations are worlds apart, and the comments on my last post made that crystal clear. Thank you to those who shared their thoughts!

As I think about these ideas, I’m starting to realize the problem I’m solving really isn’t the right one. The tag line on this blog is “a project devoted to an autonomous lawn mower.” But the real goal is actually increasing lawn care productivity. An autonomous mower is only a means to accomplish that goal.

Greenzie and Mowbotix haven’t succeeded yet because they haven’t built a system that increases lawn care productivity. While they have successfully removed the operator from the mower, they’re making a mistake by trying to sell it to lawn care companies. Integrating an autonomous lawn mower with the way lawn care companies operate today actually makes them less efficient.

Lawn care companies are just as much about logistics as they are about mowing grass. Successful lawn care companies are able to quickly ferry workers and mowers to multiple job sites throughout the day. But to do this they use expensive tools: a truck and a trailer. And beyond the cost of the truck and trailer, they also waste a lot of time travelling between job sites.

These are major costs that get baked into the price people pay for mowing services. Which is great: it means that there is a lot of waste in the way lawns are currently mowed, and that it’s possible that a new way of mowing lawns can exploit these inefficiencies for profit.

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!