(Bloomberg Businessweek) —
Depending on where you are in the world, working from home in summer comes with a unique soundscape. There’s the melody of kids at play, the shhhh-tik-tik-tik of high-pressure sprinkler systems and the distant jingle of ice cream trucks. There’s also an almost incessant background drone: the angry whir of gas-powered lawn mowers running at full throttle.
The last of these may not be long for this world. After years of false starts, a growing number of autonomous, electric lawn mowers are starting to compete with their internal-combustion cousins. These battery-powered mowers (think big outdoor Roombas with blades) are cleaner and quieter than those running on gasoline, and they join a blossoming market for landscaping tools that don’t spew carbon.
“Here, literally everyone I know has one,” says Maria Yatrakis, a professional-soccer-player-turned-coach who lives in rural Sweden. “And everyone names them. Ours is called Gardy.”
Yatrakis says Gardy—short for the brand name Gardena Sileno—saves her and her wife two hours a week of manual labor and reduces her allergies, because mowing now happens at night. “They look like big turtles,” Yatrakis says. “Just turtling around, doing their job.”
Electric mowers are effectively tiny climate warriors. Running a gasoline lawn mower for an hour releases as much carbon dioxide equivalent as driving a sedan for 45 minutes, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency, and those emissions add up quickly. In 2011, the most recent year with available data, gas-powered lawn equipment accounted for 12% of carbon monoxide emissions in the US and 43% of volatile organic compound emissions, harmful gases that also waft from paints and pesticides.
Robo-mowers have technically been around for decades, but until recently they weren’t that good. The autonomous part wasn’t so hard—they occasionally get stuck or ingest a stray ball—but the big, knobby tires make light work of uneven terrain. The real breakthrough was more efficient batteries that can cover more ground on a single charge. Some old versions were even tethered by power cords, which could be run over and severed.
Older models also used to pingpong around an area bordered by a physical wire, but new models take advantage of preloaded maps to navigate via GPS—and avoid spots that should be skipped. “If you want to install a flower bed or swimming pool, you just go into the app and say, ‘Stay out of this area,’ ” says Glen Instone, president of the forest and garden division of Husqvarna Group, a company in Stockholm that started making autonomous mowers almost 30 years ago. Last year the company harvested almost $600 million in robo-mower revenue.
Husqvarna’s robo-mowers start at about $700, compared with $600 for the typical gas- and human-powered version. At the highest end is the Automower 450 X Nera, which costs $5,900 and has a big enough battery to keep up with 2.4 acres of grass. (Clippings are mulched, not collected.)
Another fleet of landroids comes from Mammotion in Hong Kong, which raised almost $3.4 million from 2,400 backers on Kickstarter last year. The company now sells three robo-mowers globally, each of which looks like a stubby little Formula One car. The most turbo Mammotion, the AWD 5000 ($2,800), can cut 1.3 acres and navigate a 75-degree slope.
Stihl Inc., based in Waiblingen, Germany, and known for its trademark orange-and-white power tools, also makes a robot mower. The iMow RMI 632 PC-L covers about 1.3 acres, costs $2,000 and is no louder than a house fan. “It’s one of the largest research and development projects that Stihl has ever done,” says Brian Manke, product segment manager for wheeled goods.
Autonomous mowers are making their earliest inroads with commercial customers—office complexes, universities, golf courses—where they can replace the humans, who typically constitute two-thirds the cost of any major groundskeeping operation. There’s high adoption in Scandinavian countries, in part because of how quickly the grass grows during long summer days. Roughly half the market for grass-cutting machines in Sweden is now autonomous and electric, according to Husqvarna. In Germany it’s about a quarter; in the UK, 5%.
In the US, where single-family homes and large lawns lead to about 10 million lawn mower sales a year, Husqvarna says only 5% of the market is battery-operated. But that number could climb quickly: Multiple cities, and the entire state of California, have banned the sale of most gas-powered tools by the end of the year.
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Kyle Stock in Denver at firstname.lastname@example.org
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