Advancements in zero-turn mowers, which for several years have focused mainly on new entrants to the market, operator comfort, vehicle styling and advancing diagnostics, is now entering the “intelligent vehicle” performance phase.

Hydro-Gear is one of the companies that previewed its new intelligent drive technology recently at GIE+Expo. Manufacturers are expected to make announcements early in 2018 about their products that incorporate Hydro-Gear’s Smartec ZT Drive System, with widespread availability by 2019.

According to the company, the Smartec ZT Drive System is the first-ever production mower drive system that incorporates individualized and intelligent vehicle performance, while maximizing comfort, efficiency and capabilities.

The system incorporates MowNet system software, an innovation where all components are integrated with easy plug-and-play connectivity, simplified wiring, and on-demand upgradability. An app allows MowNet to interface with a table or smartphone (not a specialized computer) for trouble-shooting, customization and adjustments.

The system provides operator customization through the MyMow interface that stores an unlimited number of settings for the same mower such as forward and reverse speed, acceleration and overall control.

Another advancement with Smartec is the Dynamic Stability Assist Module that automatically monitors and adjusts the mower’s speed and performance across 9 axes of motion. It also intelligently self-corrects the mower for straighter mowing and improved control on gentle slopes.

Rural Lifestyle Dealer talked with Alyn Brown, Smartec market segment manager, to learn more.

Rural Lifestyle Dealer: How long has this technology been in development and what was the impetus behind it?

Alyn Brown: About 5 years ago, we did some market research to see what people wanted in a better zero-turn. We asked dealers and checked reviews on websites and also asked homeowners about why they wouldn’t buy a zero-turn. We learned they wanted a mower that was easier to control and drive. For instance, customers said that lap bars aren’t intuitive and a big complaint was the bars didn’t stay aligned after use, so the operator would have to mow with one bar slightly forward or backward to drive straight. Stability and maintenance were other concerns.

We took a step back and thought about how to improve these systems and knew it would be tough to fix them mechanically and we were not sure that the industry in general is ready for a commercial electric drive. Technology filters in from the auto industry, but there is a gap between what can be adapted to the lawn and garden industry. And full electric machines, like those in the market today, are also expensive and the price point isn’t at what the majority of landscapers want to pay. Many dealerships are also not ready to service all-electric models — they might not have the capacity or the capabilities to trouble-shoot those machines. For instance, less than 5% of mowers sold have EFI engines; the rest still have carburetors. We wanted to make the technology easy for the OEMs to sell and easy for dealers to service.

This all led to the development of MowNet that allows component electronics to be plugged into a common bus, similar to something like a USB interface on a computer. Its “plug-and-play” connectivity and its open architecture will allow OEMs to introduce their own innovations. And, the technology also allows dealers to use the laptops they already have, or even smartphones, to trouble shoot and program the mower.

RLD: How does this technology benefit the operator?

Brown: This technology includes MyMow, which allows mower and performance customization by dealers and customers. For instance, landscapers can program the machines to not exceed a certain speed. And, we’re working with manufacturers to use MyMow to maintain the feel of the machines they are known for.

Our big focus is on higher-end residential mowers used by estate homeowners, who want a professional looking cut. There are a lot of benefits to commercial mowers as well, such as increased efficiency and less fatigue. However, there is nothing to learn in terms of how to operate a machine with Smartec functionality.

RLD: Can you provide more specifics about how the technology integrates with the machine?

Brown: The base of the system is a servo control module that attaches to the transaxle of our 2400-3400 series and our 3600 series. OEMs will mount the transaxles as they did before, making slight modifications to account for the control module.

Sensors are placed on the lap bar or a joystick that tells the system an operator is present. And, the dynamic assist module is also placed on the vehicle. A vehicle integration module replaces the traditional series of relays with a single control. It allows the MowNet system to integrate with analog controls.

Right now, we are focused on new units and not retrofitting older models.

RLD: What about the cost to consumers?

Brown: The technology will add some costs, but it will comparable to deciding options like an EFI engine or a larger deck. This technology will just be another option for consumers to choose.

Future capabilities may include a remote-controlled option. Being able to add functionality is one of the great advantages to the way we designed it.