repair & maintenance

John Deere tractors (self-)driving the right-to-repair to the wall

Imagine you just dropped a cool half-million on a new car. As your prized possession is delivered to your doorstep on the back of a flatbed truck, you’re handed a manila envelope. Inside, there’s an End User Agreement from the manufacturer that essentially grants you the right to use the car but retains overall ownership of your shiny new vehicle.

That’s the bizarre situation that’s increasingly normal, as technology becomes an integral part of everyday objects. And while the imaginary supercar outside your house is (tragically) just that – imaginary – it’s the reality for US farmers investing in John Deere farm equipment. A half-million bucks will just about stretch to a new combine harvester these days, and, depending in which state you happen to buy it, when it goes wrong you will have no rights whatsoever to repair it. You don’t actually own it, so you can’t repair it yourself.

That’s seen as a significant backward step by environmentalists, farmers’ unions, and advocates for the right to repair. On the ground, fixing a tractor or combine in the middle of a busy harvest could be essential – no one has the time to wait a couple of days for a John Deere engineer to come out and fix a machine. But owners of new John Deere machines have to do just that — even if the “owner” can see what’s wrong, and could fix the problem themselves.

And while the agri-giant made many headlines showcasing its new tech at CES 2022 (its autonomous tractor made a big splash), the company’s aggressive stance on non-approved repairs and replacement parts chimed with many technology industry watchers. Increasingly, OEMs produce hardware that’s deliberately non-upgradeable and unrepairable, save by approved vendors.

We’re increasingly given soldered-on RAM and components glued together to prevent access in laptops, for example. Mobile phones used to have replaceable batteries and fascias – no more. Today, when your hardware looks a little jaded, there’s often little choice other than to buy a new model. Replacing component parts that are beginning to fail is deliberately made so expensive that a brand-new device looks like a viable alternative alongside the repair or replacement.

In the EU (and the UK, for now), a form of right to repair was partially enacted into law in the Sales of Goods Directive, which provides for products to be repaired. Manufacturers of white goods (fridges, washing machines, tumble driers, etc.) are bound by the law to provide manuals, repair guides, and standardized spare parts on the open market so anyone, including the owner, can repair defective items.

In 2022 the European Commission (the executive of the pan-European government system) has proposed amendments [PDF] to the Sale of Goods Directive to be written into law towards the end of the year that will strengthen the rights of consumers to repair products at fair prices, with a view of extending the useful life of more types of goods and generally furthering the concept of the circular economy.

Environmental lobbyists in the EU are keen that these types of measures be extended to manufacturers of smaller electronic devices such as computers and cellphones, thus forcing the likes of Apple and Samsung to fully open up post-market repairs to third parties, including owners. Apple has responded to this groundswell of opinion by making small concessions, providing training and parts to some third-party repair stores. That’s a standard Apple playbook move: make small gestures to appease legislators and put big money into marketing (and lobbying) to try and defuse public sentiment before governments start playing hardball.

Yet despite moving quicker and legislating more than some, the EU still has ways to go. In 2020 each European citizen produced an average of 16kg (about 35lb) of electrical waste. According to The Independent, about half came from broken household appliances, and only about 40% of that was recycled.

Around 20 US States have enacted some form of right-to-repair legislation to date. In 2019, New Hampshire state Representative David Luneau took a digital right-to-repair bill in front of his State legislature. During presentations at the committee stage, the public gallery was packed out by opponents to his proposals wearing green and yellow John Deere T-shirts.

A statement from John Deere’s Ken Golden, director of global public relations at the time, read, “John Deere supports the right to repair but not the right to modify […] Allowing untrained individuals to modify equipment software can endanger operators, bystanders, dealers, mechanics, customers, and others and may result in equipment that no longer complies with industry and safety standards or environmental regulations.”

More recently, a class-action lawsuit filed on January 12, 2022 claims that John Deere has restricted access to repair documentation and tools, and deliberately made software inaccessible to users, making it hard for third parties (and machines’ owners) to mend their highly costly agricultural equipment.

The action states, “[…] in newer generations of its agricultural equipment, Deere has deliberately monopolized the market for repair and maintenance services of its agricultural equipment with Engine Control Units (ECUs) by making crucial software and repair tools inaccessible to farmers and independent repair shops.”

Meanwhile, farmers in the US continue to invest in second-hand farm machinery, because older kit remains repairable on-farm. That’s something generations of farmers have seemingly always done: “There’s an affinity factor if you grew up around these tractors, but it goes way beyond that,” Greg Peterson, founder of the farm equipment data company Machinery Pete, told the Minnesota StarTribune in 2020. “These [older tractors] are basically bulletproof. You can put 15,000 hours on it and if something breaks you can just replace it.”

When manufacturers of goods, agricultural or technological, own full rights over the hardware and software of their products, and supply their goods with severe strictures built into T&Cs, there is little that consumers can do other than band together and bring class-action suits. That’s the reality facing users of some technology brands, although in most areas, there is a choice of vendors. In agricultural machinery, there is still choice, and many farmers are voting with their cash.

However, terms initially seen as onerous become, over time, a “new normal.” Technology users should be protesting with their choices and voices as vociferously as they can, and hope that the farming community will do likewise. Otherwise, sending only slightly flawed hardware to landfill sites will become an acceptable part of life, and big agri-business will monopolize food production. The future may be bright for big businesses’ shareholders, but the future will also be very short.

The ‘right to repair’ is now an issue in agriculture

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