Mowing fairways can appear easy.

But it is actually a complex task, especially for championship courses that want attractive striping patterns for televised or popular spectator events.

"To get the level of detail that we're looking for and, you know, to really reach that expert level that take hours upon hours of being on that equipment," said Brian Boll, director of golf course and grounds at Interlachen Country Club in Edina.

Boll has found a way to make it easier. He and his workers have been testing Toro's autonomous mowers over the past two years, and he finds the mowers controlled by smartphones deliver consistent patterns and allow for more productivity from workers, who can do other tasks while the mowers are running.

The autonomous vehicles are a pillar of Toro's strategic plan under CEO Rick Olson of more autonomous, electric and hybrid vehicles. Toro now offers electric products ranging in size from residential mowers, snowblowers and handheld tools to zero-turn mowers that are the workhorse of golf and grounds crews.

The success of these products is not only part of the Bloomington-based company's profitability plan. Electric and hybrid vehicle production is a good part of the company's long-term sustainability plan. The goal: 20% of motorized product sales. Its recently released sustainability impact report for 2023 shows that these sales were only 6.7% of total motorized sales last year.

The strategy has set Toro apart from its peers, said Pete Johnson, investment manager at St. Paul-based advisory firm Mairs & Power, which has been a longtime Toro shareholder.

"The autonomous mower, the battery-powered mower, the hybrid mower, they've typically been about three years ahead of the competition," Johnson said of Toro. "But it's really service and support where they have won."

Last year Toro introduced Haven, an autonomous electric mower for residential customers. The mower, which roughly resembles Roomba autonomous vacuum cleaners, uses a vision-based system for navigation to learn its mowing patterns. Previous autonomous mowers in that space required guidewires buried underground.

New technology boosts autonomous products

Experiments with autonomous mowers throughout the golf and grounds market goes back about 20 years, but widespread adoption has fallen short.

Toro has experimented with autonomous products in the past with limited success, but the advances in robotics and satellite navigation pioneered by much larger industries like agriculture and automotive have helped Toro develop and adapt those technologies into much more capable products.

"The cost of adopting the technology has come down, while the capabilities of the technology have come up," said Josh Kravik, product marketing manager at Toro.

The autonomous mowers have been a key tool for the 115-year-old Interlachen as it undergoes a major renovation to return some original course features, Boll said. The club is set to reopen this summer. It will host the U.S. Women's Open in 2030, the 100th anniversary of one of its claims to fame: Bobby Jones winning the U.S. Open as part of his grand slam of that era's four major tournaments.

"Utilizing the autonomous mower really was quite successful in this renovation," Boll said. "It's just that opportunity to shift those labor hours in another direction."

The experiment has Boll thinking creatively about autonomous vehicles. "I think that there will probably be exponential growth with additional units. You could deploy those strategically and potentially capture even more savings on that front."

To get the precision needed to repeatedly do its routes Toro utilizes a real time kinematic navigation system based on global navigation satellite system (GNSS) that is accurate within centimeters rather than the 10- to 15-meter range of older GPS systems.

Toro estimates users can get up to a 75% reduction in the human hours needed for fairway mowing by utilizing the autonomous fairway mower.

Electrification key strategy for Toro

Toro has been betting its future on more electrification, autonomous solutions and smart-connected technology since Olson was elevated to CEO in 2016.

In 2021, Toro made two acquisitions in the autonomous space that have helped fuel the development of new products across its portfolio. Portugal-based Turflynx develops autonomous solutions for fairway mowers, Longmont, Colo.-based Left Hand Robotics Inc. was known for autonomous solutions for mowing and snow removal.

"Our acquisitions of Left Hand Robotics and TurfLynx, along with internal investments, have accelerated our innovation pipeline of transformational technologies and furthered our momentum as a leader in the industries we serve," Olson said.

More electric vehicles

The electric commercial vehicles utilize Toro's proprietary HyperCell battery technology giving users a no-compromise performance compared with previous lead-acid based products from Toro and others. Customers pay a premium for those products but total operating costs are comparable when reduced operating and maintenance costs are factored in.

The battery-powered vehicles reduce site specific emissions but users also get an immediate goodwill benefit from significantly reduced noise levels.

The flagship autonomous vehicles range from the GeoLink Solutions Autonomous Fairway Mower that Interlachen is testing to the stand-on mower Exmark for the professional and landscape contractor markets. Product names and prices haven't been finalized but are expected to be commercially available by the end of 2024.

Safety was at the forefront of developing the autonomous fairway mower and Exmark autonomous mower. The mowers are based on familiar Toro designs and can be operated manually but mostly to move the mowers from location to location.

The autonomous mowers have visual cues that let observers know what mode the mowers are in. With both models if somebody tries to get on the mowers while they are in autonomous mode they'll stop and shut down. Three different types of sensors detect obstacles to protect bystanders and the equipment, shutting the machine down if needed.

Toro's autonomous fairway mower marries several advanced technologies in one product. Fully autonomous and powered by a hybrid engine they are the first major OEM with a high energy machine for golf specifically designed for fairway mowing, Toro officials say.

Golf market could be growing again

Golf is rebounding in popularity, which provides a significant opportunity for Toro and its competitors.

Through April, golf rounds played in the U.S. have risen 4.2% across the United States and up highest, 11.6%, in the west north central region that includes Minnesota, according to the National Golf Foundation (NGF). In each of the four previous years, rounds played have exceeded 500 million, only the second time in history that's happened. More younger people, women and people of color are also playing golf.

What's more, according to the NGF, the trend in golf course closings and new golf course openings has improved with the fewest course closing in 2023 than any year since 2004 and the most new course openings since 2010.

With labor markets continuing to be tight the new and open courses might be looking for more autonomous solutions. And Toro says it plans to offer more across its brands and product categories.

"The Toro Company is committed to further exploring autonomous technologies across its brands and product categories to help improve our customer's productivity and meet their evolving needs," said John Hurst, senior director for Toro's Center for Technology, Research and Innovation.