It's Payback Time: Right-to-repair Movement Targets John Deere

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky

With the California Farm Bureau effectively giving away the right of farmers to repair their own equipment without involving the distributor in the spring of 2019, the right-to-repair movement fell back on its heels. Horrified by the ground lost, the group has rallied to better incorporate those hoping to fix or modify mobile devices and automobiles. Despite being disparate products, members share a common goal of returning control to consumers and preventing various industries from having a stranglehold on products they were supposed to relinquish ownership of when sold.

Hoping to better illustrate the plight of farmers, Bloomberg published an article outlining one man’s struggle with John Deere. Kevin Kenney is a Nebraska-based engineer who’s also a member of a grassroots campaign to undermine the corporate mandate against repairing its tractors. He believes farmers owe it to themselves to know how to fix their own equipment or risk finding themselves perpetually at the mercy of the manufacturer — while losing the skills to be self-reliant.

Why should you care? It’s presumed automakers will follow a similar business plan as vehicles become increasingly networked and electric, and as executives redefine what constitutes ownership while using proprietary software as their shield. Pretty much exactly what John Deere is doing.

Kenney and company started a movement that now seeks to establish right-to-repair laws across the country, with 20 American states now entertaining the possibility of enacting new legislation. It even attracted the attention of Senator Elizabeth Warren when she was still campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination. She endorsed the platform in the spring of 2019. The brunt of the movement, however, still rests with small business owners and consumer advocacy groups interested in supporting the proverbial little guy.

“People just want to fix their stuff. We are tired of manufacturers price-gouging for repairs, selling us disposable electronics and pushing us to buy new instead of fixing what we already have. It’s should be no surprise that interest in the right to repair keeps growing, with 20 states filing bills already this year,” Nathan Proctor, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group’s Campaign Director for Right-to-Repair, said in a statement last year.

“Electronic waste is the fastest-growing waste stream in the world. It’s high time we stopped manufacturers from blocking repair, which keeps devices working and off the scrap heap. It’s better for consumers and better for the environment, and whether or not manufacturers like it, more and more people agree: We deserve the right to repair our products.”

From Bloomberg:

[John Deere] says the world needs digitized farming to feed the 10 billion people expected on Earth by 2050. The proprietary software Kenney and other repair advocates revile enables sensors and computers on machines to log and transmit data on everything: moisture and nitrogen levels in soil; the exact placement of seeds, fertilizer, and pesticides; and, ultimately, the size of the harvest. Having access to so much real-time data enables farmers and their computer-controlled machines to plant, spray, fertilize, and harvest at optimal times with as little waste as possible. All the farmer has to do is link his equipment to agronomic prescriptions beamed to him over the internet.

This is farming’s version of big data, and the potential is staggering, enthusiasts say. The efficiency gains of recent decades have increased productivity an estimated 1.4 [percent] per year for the past 70 years, and U.S. farmers now produce an average corn yield of about 175 bushels an acre. That’s still less than 30 [percent] of what some hyper-attentive farmers have shown is possible under optimum conditions. Deere and other agriculture technology companies are betting that what the industry calls “precision agriculture” can dramatically expand output.

While Mr. Kenney acknowledged the digitization of farm equipment has helped increase agricultural productivity, he’s fearful that too much of the power is being transitioned to machines and the companies that unilaterally control what happens to them.

Modern-day tractors log data just like automobiles, with manufacturers scooping up that info as it’s transmitted to the cloud. Why can’t farmers, at-home mechanics and your average person attempting to fix their own iPhone handle it themselves? We don’t know for sure, but John Deere says it isn’t safe, what with farmers only having an implied license to operate a vehicle they purchased.

“One tweak could cascade throughout an entire software system and lead to unintended consequences,” Julian Sanchez, Deere’s director of precision agriculture strategy and business development, suggested.

Digital-rights activists say this is bunk, with many claiming this is all being done to consolidate control among original equipment manufacturers.

“We’ve been telling people for years that if it has a chip in it, it’s going to get monopolized,” Gay Gordon-Byrne, executive director of the Repair Association, told Bloomberg. She’s been working with Kenney for years and helped get legislation passed inside Massachusetts in 2012 that required the auto industry to provide car owners and independent mechanics with the same diagnostic and repair equipment used at the dealership.

However, Gordon-Byrne and Kenney don’t always see things eye to eye. Concerned that smaller farmers won’t be able to compete with the high-cost of new equipment and manufacturer-sanctioned repairs, they’re working together to advance right-to-repair legislation in states with less-powerful equipment lobbies and smaller farms. But when he attempted to dazzle her with a photo of a 2017 John Deere combine he had modified on the sly, she urged him to exercise caution, saying the changes could fall outside copyright law and amount to theft of services.

“Gay, thanks but why was it OK years ago to pull the diesel engine fuel pump off, screw the horsepower up, put it back on, and run it with no consequences of ‘theft’?” he responded. “Just because these engines are now electronic vs. mechanical, we’ve lost our rights to repair and modify? Back in my day we truly believed, Hot-Rodding is a National Birthright!”

Good luck, Kevin. We’re pulling for you.

[Image: Guy RD/Shutterstock]

Matt Posky
Matt Posky

A staunch consumer advocate tracking industry trends and regulation. Before joining TTAC, Matt spent a decade working for marketing and research firms based in NYC. Clients included several of the world’s largest automakers, global tire brands, and aftermarket part suppliers. Dissatisfied with the corporate world and resentful of having to wear suits everyday, he pivoted to writing about cars. Since then, that man has become an ardent supporter of the right-to-repair movement, been interviewed on the auto industry by national radio broadcasts, driven more rental cars than anyone ever should, participated in amateur rallying events, and received the requisite minimum training as sanctioned by the SCCA. Handy with a wrench, Matt grew up surrounded by Detroit auto workers and managed to get a pizza delivery job before he was legally eligible. He later found himself driving box trucks through Manhattan, guaranteeing future sympathy for actual truckers. He continues to conduct research pertaining to the automotive sector as an independent contractor and has since moved back to his native Michigan, closer to where the cars are born. A contrarian, Matt claims to prefer understeer — stating that front and all-wheel drive vehicles cater best to his driving style.

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  • Speedlaw Speedlaw on Mar 08, 2020

    Car makers all have to support the OBD protocol, but beyond that, are a whole list of things only the dealer's own computer can read....my local indy tells me he pays a $10k/yr rental to a service that allows him to read the mfr settings and diagnostics. I'm not an electric car expert, but there are what - two, three different plugs ? Here is a place there should be a government standard, but every one wants to rent seek and own the next lightbulb screw in socket.

  • ToolGuy ToolGuy on Mar 09, 2020

    "She'll make .5 past light speed. She may not look like much, but she's got it where it counts, kid - I've made a lot of *special* modifications myself."

  • Grg I am not sure that this would hold up in snow country. It used to be that people in snow country would not be caught dead in a white car. Now that white cars have become popular in the north, I can't tell you how many times I have seen white cars driving in the snow without lights. Almost all cars are less visible in a snow storm, or for that matter, rain storm, without lights. White ones become nearly invisible.
  • Douglas I have a 2018 BMW 740e PHEV, and love it. It has a modest electric only range compared to newer PHEV's (about 18 miles), but that gets me to the office and back each day. It has a small gas tank to make room for the battery, so only holds about 11 gallons. I easily go 600 or more miles per tank. I love it, and being able to take long road trips without having to plug in (it just operates like a regular Hybrid if you never plug it in). It charges in 75 minutes in my garage from a Level 2 charger I bought on Amazon for $350. Had an electrician add a dryer outlet beside the breaker box. It's the best of both worlds and I would definitely want a PHEV for my next car. 104,000 miles and ZERO problems with the powertrain components (so far).
  • Panther Platform I had a 98 Lincoln Mark VIII so I have a soft spot for this. The Mark VIII styling was not appreciated by all.
  • Grant P Farrell Oh no the dealership kept the car for hours on two occasions before giving me a loaner for two months while they supposedly replaced the ECU. I hate cords so I've only connected it wirelessly. Next I'm gonna try using the usb-c in the center console and leaving the phone plugged in in there, not as convenient but it might lower my blood pressure.
  • Jeff Tiny electrical parts are ruining today's cars! What can they ...
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