Farmers shouldn’t have to hack their own tractors when they break down, say advocates for state laws that would require manufacturers to provide a way for owners to repair the high-tech products they buy. The Repair Association says its an issue that extends to a wide variety of consumer products outfitted with software, from tractors to cellphones.
As technology advances, what used to be a simple repair is now much more complex, often involving computer troubleshooting as much as a mechanical work. One place where this change is playing out is on America’s farms.
The issue: A farmer who purchases a tractor gets a key to the engine, but its software—a critical component in modern-day tractors, for example, is self-steering through GPS—stays behind a proprietary lock. If a tractor’s software is experiencing technical difficulties, fixing the problem is not as easy as opening the hood or visiting a nearby shop.
“The tractors use diagnostic software that can only be unlocked by an authorized party to validate the repair work,” writes Danny Bradbury for Naked Security.
Software embedded in consumer products is often protected by copyright law, which raises complicated questions of who owns an item and has a right to tinker with it.
“With the cloud and the internet of things, we’ve become used to the idea that the devices we’re buying aren’t ours, as such, but rather portals for the delivery of other services and content,” writes Bradbury, who suggests this circumstance puts consumers at the mercy of vendors.
To get around the software lock, some farmers have hacked their own tractors using Ukrainian firmware, according to a report by Motherboard. The report quotes a Nebraska farmer and repair mechanic who uses pirated John Deere software: “I’m not a big business or anything, but let’s say you’ve got a guy here who has a tractor and something goes wrong with it—the nearest dealership is 40 miles away, but you’ve got me or a diesel shop a mile away. The only way we can fix things is illegally, which is what’s holding back free enterprise more than anything and hampers a farmer’s ability to get stuff done, too.”
Gay Gordon-Byrne, executive director of the Repair Association, which advocates for consumers’ right to repair products they purchase, told High Plains Public Radio (HPPR) that she can’t “blame anyone for trying” to fix a software problem on their own. But her organization is pushing for a legal way to do so.
Legislatures in eight states, including Nebraska, New York, and Illinois, are considering bills that would require manufacturers to sell repair software for a variety of products, from tractors to phones to home appliances. The legislation is modeled after a 2012 Massachusetts law that requires automobile industry vendors to sell repair and diagnostic software.
Aaron Perzanowski, a Case Western Reserve University professor, told HPPR that the Massachusetts measure resulted in “a nationwide, privately negotiated agreement between car manufacturers and repair shops that implemented that Massachusetts legislation across the country. So things are much easier in the auto world now than they were, and it’s different how we handle repair of cars compared to other goods.”
Andy Goodman of the Iowa-Nebraska Equipment Dealers Association is on the other side of the tractor debate. Providing repair software to farmers would allow them to do more than fix breakdowns, he noted. Such software would give them access to emissions and safety controls, potentially making tractors dangerous to operate and creating liability issues for dealers.
“When we resell that machine, we have guaranteed it’s going to perform within certain standards—those [standards] stated by the manufacturer, but also those required under law,” Goodman said.
But the Repair Association’s members think legislative change is “long overdue,” whether for agricultural or other products, Gordon-Byrne said when the group launched last year. “We have all these little businesses trying to repair stuff and running into what they thought were different problems in different industries. We realized it was all just the same problem.”