Alyn Brown, vice president of Connected Devices for Level Up Development, is working to bring an enhanced user experience to zero-turn mowers through adding new electronic controls and smart connection technology.

In the following Q&A with Rural Lifestyle Dealer, Brown addresses his technology-friendly philosophy and the new developments he and the team are working on right now. He also works to educate the industry on why new technology is necessary to enhance the effectiveness and efficiency of the machine, benefiting both dealers and operators. Brown starts the discussion by acknowledging a common problem for zero-turn mowers.

Alyn Brown: Typically, when you buy a zero-turn mower directly from the dealer, the lap bars are aligned, so it will drive fairly straight. However, within a relatively short period of time, all of that goes out of adjustment, and the operator has to compensate to maintain a straight direction. It’s a big issue for the dealers because there are several things that can affect how the mower drives, such as the tire air pressure, and the speed of the transaxles. There’s a lot of variables that go into it, but at the end of the day, the machines don’t always go straight when you want them to.

A few years ago, I started looking at this common problem and considered how to solve it by adding electronic controls to the mix. For example, one of the things that we were able to do is add something called an “IMU,” which is a small electronic device that uses Gyros and accelerometers to measure the position of the machine, and outputs a signal to tell the controls what direction the machine is headed and the rate of change from that direction. With zero-turn mowers, if the control systems know the position of the lap bars and the direction that the lawn mower is going, then the control system will know if the lawn mower deviates from that direction unintentionally. The system can use this technology to correct it electronically, even factoring in terrain and hillsides. The user still has full control of the vehicle — it’s not overriding with anything. It basically just adds a stability enhancement to the machine. It works really well. This control system was set up on a few Demo vehicles at the last couple of GIE shows for customers to test drive!

Rural Lifestyle Dealer: When you’re thinking about ideas for what might solve a problem, how are you, as a designer or engineer, coming up with your solutions?

Brown: When I’m having conversations with dealers or users, I want them to tell me about the problems that they are experiencing and how they would like to improve their experience. Then, I like to investigate creative technologies that I can apply to their machine to help solve the problem and improve the user experience! For the mower example, there is the straight-line drivability issue. I spend a lot of time researching and investigating the latest tech and learning about what other companies are doing in seemingly-unrelated fields. For instance, a lot of the straight line tracking we use on the zero-turn mowers is being driven by the drone industry.

RLD: What technology do you see evolving now within our industry?

Brown: About 90% of people already have some type of smartphone. The users should have the capability to connect to the mower, see where the machine is located, whether it’s being operated and gather other data. This could be done by accessing the machine’s EFI engine and checking for error codes and then making adjustments, without the need for specialized equipment to do this. We could actually notify the user or the dealer that it’s time, for example, to change the oil in the engine or even in the hydrostatic transaxles. Another capability we have talked about with dealers is for the machine to notify the user when it’s time for maintenance and even give the user the option to schedule an appointment with a dealer or order the parts directly from their phone. We are currently developing this kind of technology and customizing it for our customers.

We can also use this technology to turn a zero-turn mower into a remote-controlled vehicle. You could hop off where it’s necessary for safety or convenience, and use the machine from a distance. You could also configure the machine’s parameters. For example, for a new operator, you could program it so that it only runs at 50% of top speed to help them safely learn how to use the machine. That technology has been out for a few years, but it’s just now getting inexpensive enough to be added to mowers.

RLD: How does this technology get to the consumer? Is it something that OEMs would already have on the machines, or could it be added by the dealer?

Brown: We’re actually in the process of building the hardware devices that will connect to the machines now. The devices could be installed by the OEM and delivered from the factory on new machines. We’re thinking that the hardware will be sold with the connection service included for the first year, after which there would be a reasonable fee to the user to continue the subscription. But there’s no reason it couldn’t be sold as a dealer-installed option — it could definitely work that way. Right now it’s a plugin box. It’s about half the size of a cell phone that could easily be installed at the OEM or at the dealer.

RLD: People like to mow their lawns, they like to go out and use their tractors. How do you balance automating what you’re developing with what people really want?

Brown: One of the things that surprised me about big powerful zero-turn mowers is that they’re more closely related to powersports equipment than to lawn mowers. People go home and want to hop on their machine, play with the power and enjoy the experience of running it themselves. That’s a very American view to that type of equipment. The vehicle is closer to a high performance UTV than it is to what I would consider a tractor-type lawn mower. Once I was able to put my mind around the idea that a zero-turn mower is both powersports equipment and a traditional lawn mower, it changed the equation of how I viewed the machine’s autonomy.

People don’t want to autonomously mow their lawn if they enjoy mowing themselves. My direction is, well, let me make that experience better. What I like to think about is, are there certain tasks that I can automate? Maybe I can automate raising the deck for uneven terrain. Maybe I can automate the turn the mower makes at the end of each row. I think there’s going to be a lot of steps to a fully autonomous mower. For example, maybe I drive the mowers to the starting point, hit start and let the mower finish out the yard that I’ve started mowing. I like to think about ways to lessen the workload on the operator so that the operator can focus on the tasks that he or she needs to focus on, and let the machine handle the rest.

RLD: What are you facing in terms of obstacles?

Brown: The biggest roadblock that we’re seeing right now is the fear that the customers don’t want the technology or won’t benefit from the technology, but there’s also some fear that the dealers won’t see the benefits of the technology. I don’t think anybody’s really pushed a product like this with a focus on how it could bring value to the dealers or how it could bring revenue to the dealers. But at the end of the day, bringing revenue to the dealers and the OEMs is as important as bringing a better experience to the user. I don’t think people have been able to see a clear path for how this could truly benefit everyone down the line.

RLD: What would you say to dealers about how they can keep up with technology and make the necessary investments to be ready at their dealerships?

Brown: The dealer is going to be a hugely important user in this entire system. They’ve got to speak up and say what they want. The dealers need to push their OEMs to let them know that they want this capability, that they see the value it can provide to their customers. They need to explain that any new technology needs to be easy to use and affordable for customers. The new technology also needs to be simple for the dealer to sell and service and won’t require them to purchase extra diagnostic equipment. It’s critical that dealers provide input. Part of our process in designing the app portion of this platform is working with dealers, seeing what they want and actually letting the dealers use it before it’s launched to make sure that we’ve hit the mark.

RLD: What do you see happening longer term in zero-turn mower technology?

Brown: Over the next few years, we’re going to see a lot more really good electric and hybrid machines become available. We’re going to see full electric zero-turn mowers — there’s some pretty good ones out there right now, but we’re going to see more. The prices of the electronics will come down as the price of gas goes back up. The dealers have got to push their OEMs to make sure that machines that incorporate new technology are still easy to service. Dealers aren’t going to hire an electrical engineer to troubleshoot a problem on an electric machine. They’ll just choose not to sell it.

The full interview with Brown serves as an episode of the Rural Lifestyle Dealer podcast. Tune in here.