When someone says "concept vehicle" construction equipment rarely comes to mind, but that hasn't stopped BMW Group subsidiary Designworks and John Deere turning their collective crystal ball on the humble backhoe. The backhoe of the future concept uses a more flexible, lightweight design combined with machine intelligence to produce a digger for tomorrow's world market.

As anyone who has operated a backhoe can tell you, they may be incredible machines for digging trenches, but they are not the easiest things in the world to handle. The controls are like something out of a tank, working the levers is like stirring coal, they aren't the greatest in tight corners, the seat is often about as comfortable as one off a Willys Jeep, and the cabin, if it has one, is a one-size-fits-all that doesn't fit any climate.

The Designworks concept backhoe, which was revealed this week at CONEXPO-CON/AGG in Las Vegas, aims to reduce the vehicle weight by at least 20 percent over current equipment by means of a lightweight metal exoskeleton, and to reduce its environmental impact by ten percent. It's supposed to be less expensive to manufacture, and has a flexible design to meet the needs of regional markets, because the perfect backhoe for the Alaskan tundra isn't the perfect one for the jungles of Malaysia.

The concept has a suspended hybrid powertrain for lighter weight and greater efficiency, a lower center of gravity for greater stability and visibility, forward stabilizers and an extended wheelbase with airless radial tires, and electric drive with four-wheel steering for better maneuverability in tight quarters.

Inside, the operator's station is easy to get into and has fewer obstructions and more room. In addition, the seat and controls are isolated from the Rollover Protective Structure for a smoother ride with less noise and vibration.

The intelligent controls feature augmented interfaces for easier operation and predictive maintenance capabilities to reduce downtime, as well as enabling real-time training and better communications with project supervisors.

"We wanted to stretch and challenge ourselves to innovate in new ways," says Doug Meyer, global director of product engineering, John Deere Construction & Forestry. "We worked closely with our backhoe customers to apply their input, and we leveraged jobsite visits and qualitative research to ensure the Fixstern solutions address future customer and industry needs in performance, efficiency, and environmental compliance."

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