Fairway mower technology is constantly in development, even though machines don’t cut with lasers – yet

For more than a decade now, those who looked ahead when it came to fairway mower technology have envisioned all-electric machines that “cut” grass with lasers.

There are now hybrid fairway units, a step toward electric machines, but it is still blades and bed knives doing the cutting.

So how close are those dreams to a reality? Don’t ask the manufacturers. They won’t talk about it.

“It’s our Area 51, literally,” says a chuckling Adam Slick, the public relations and communications manager for Charlotte, N.C.-based Jacobsen.

“As far as future projects, I am not able to elaborate,” Tracy Lanier, product manager for Cary, N.C.-based John Deere Golf, wrote in an email.

“Today, there are a number of practical challenges that limit the likelihood of using lasers in this application, at least in the near term,” wrote Edric Funk, senior marketing manager at The Toro Co. in Bloomington Minn., in an email. “However, we try to avoid using words like can’t, or never, when talking about the future.”

Funk added that Toro is exploring other “initiatives” when it comes to cutting grass, but would not elucidate.

“At present, we are not ready to discuss most of these initiatives publicly,” he wrote.

What about all-electric units?

“We continue to look at what advancements are being made with battery development to see how we can best provide solutions to our customers,” Deere’s Lanier responded.

“It is the next logical place on a golf course where we would take that technology,” said Rachel Thompson, a product manager at Jacobsen.

Neither of them was willing to commit to a time frame for when that might happen.

Toro’s Funk gave a different perspective.

“We do not foresee an all-electric, battery-powered fairway mower as an effective product solution in the near term,” Funk said. “It is certainly possible to build a battery-powered fairway mower today, but today’s battery technology doesn’t lend itself to building a product that would meet our customers’ power requirements, at an acceptable weight, and for a cost they would be willing to pay.”

Much of what is new for 2014 when it comes to fairway mowers is in order to comply with a new law. Turf equipment manufactured after January 2013 and in the 24- to 75- horsepower categories must comply with the Environmental Protection Agency’s Tier 4 mandate on diesel emissions reduction. Specifically, nitrogen oxide gas emissions and diesel particulates must be reduced.

“Gone are the days of blue smoke,” Thompson said.

The Tier 4 technology is driving prices up between 10 percent and 20 percent, according to superintendents and manufacturers. Manufacturers will not talk specific pricing.

On the Web page, Build Your Own John Deere, the 8700 PrecisionCut Fairway mower has a total suggested list price of $63,503, while the 8000 E-Cut Hybrid Fairway diesel mower lists for $55,629.

Even as the golf course industry continues the trend of contracting, down nearly 1,000 courses in the last seven years, fairway mower sales have been robust in recent years.

“While we do not release specific sales numbers for significant product categories, it is important to note that Jacobsen had two successive years of double-digit sales growth in 2012 and 2013, much of that attributed to fairway mower sales,” Jacobsen’s Slick said in an email.

John Deere innovations

Here is some of the technology John Deere is touting for 2014:

  • The eHydro in the new A model driven by a hydrostatic pump, which is electronic, instead of mechanical linkages.
  • The AutoPedal feature controls engine rpm and transport speed of the machine through the eHydro foot pedal controls. It allows the engine to only run as fast as needed, which means as operators transport around the course the engine speed is only as fast as needed for the transport speed. If the operator approaches play and stops, the engine rpm goes to idle.
  • Password-protected TechControl display enables the user to quickly set or change mowing, turning and transport speed so all operators work at the same pace.

Jacobsen innovations

Here’s some of what Jacobsen has introduced for 2014:

  • Exclusive electronic hydro control with programmable speed controls to set mowing and transport speeds. The settings are protected by a pass code, so operators can’t adjust them as they see fit.
  • The armrest is now the go-to point for mechanics. It’s there that the full-text diagnostics are displayed on an LCD screen.
  • There is also the exclusive automatic wet parking brakes that is applied when the accelerator pedal is in neutral or the engine is idle or turned off.

Toro innovations

Here is some of the technology that Toro is touting for 2014:

  • The Reelmaster 3550-D, while perhaps not radical in terms of new technology, has proven to drive some radical changes in golf course behavior, according to Funk. Historically, golf courses generally had to choose either high productivity or an exceptionally lightweight footprint. With the Reelmaster 3550-D, golf courses can obtain the lightweight footprint they want – and help bentgrass fairways flourish because of it – without sacrificing productivity,according to Toro.
  • The new Tier 4 Final fairway mowers also deliver some significant customer benefits that extend beyond the emissions reductions prescribed by the EPA regulations. These new “smart” models contain an onboard InfoCenter that allows for easier communication and control by operators or equipment technicians

The convenience and added functionality of the InfoCenter help to softenthe blow of the 10 to 15 percent price premium associated with the change to Tier 4 technology, Toro states.