Why Your Ability To Fix A Tractor Could Also Be A Matter Of Life And Death | John Naughton

IIt was one of the few good news stories to emerge from the war in Ukraine. Russian looters, presumably with the help of Russian troops, stole 27 pieces of John Deere farm equipment, worth around $5 million, from a dealership in Melitopol. The kit was shipped to Chechnya, where an unpleasant surprise awaited the crooks. Their brand new vehicles had, overnight, become the heaviest paperweights in the world: the dealer from whom they had been stolen had “bricked” them remotely, using a “kill-switch” integrated.

This news item has undoubtedly warmed the hulls of more than one Western heart. But that would have only raised hollow laughs from farmers in the US states who are John Deere customers and are very pissed off because despite having paid small fortunes (up to $800,000 apparently) for company machines, they are unable to maintain or repair them when they go bad. These gigantic vehicles are no longer purely mechanical devices, but rely on numerous electronic control units (ECUs) to operate everything from the air conditioning to the driver’s seat to the engine. ICUs run software essential to the operation, maintenance and repair of the machine. But only John Deere has access to this computer code and without employing a company technician, the tractor’s software won’t even recognize (let alone allow) spare parts from another manufacturer.

What happens when your tractor breaks down? You can’t drive to your local garage, so you have to call a John Deere dealer and wait for them to dispatch a technician – at their convenience, not yours. Vice’s Motherboard column has an interesting story of how this may play out. A Missouri farmer named Jared Wilson discovered his tractor cab’s air conditioning broke just as he was about to plant his soybean crop. The tractor would run, but it would be scorching hot in the cabin, an enclosed glass sauna atop a huge hot engine in the Missouri spring heat. So he called the local John Deere dealer and asked for an appointment. The manager told him he was not a “profitable customer”, he said, which he took as a veiled threat.

Now why could that be? Wilson, it turns out, is both a vocal critic of John Deere and a vigorous campaigner for a legal “right to repair.” Her testimony before the Missouri House of Representatives when considering a bill providing this right was a sight to behold.

Wilson eventually filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) over the dispute, which may explain why his local dealership then discovered he wanted his business after all. The last thing a giant US corporation needs right now is to have an FTC chaired by Lina Khan taking a close interest in its business practices.

It is right to worry. Last July, the FTC voted unanimously to pursue policies that will make it easier for people to fix their own things. The kinds of restrictions imposed by John Deere, Khan said, could “significantly increase costs for consumers, stifle innovation, close business opportunities for independent repair shops, create unnecessary e-waste, delay timely repairs timely and undermine resilience”. And she pledged to move forward on the issue “with renewed vigor.”

This vigor will be needed because there is a huge industry lobby dedicated to resisting – or slowing down – legislation to provide a right to repair. Lobbyists’ weapons of choice include intellectual property law, trade secrets, consumer safety and competition issues. What they hide is the inconvenient truth that planned obsolescence is a bedrock of the consumer electronics industry. Apple has to release a new iPhone every year (we’re now at #13, although the iPhone 6 is still a fully functional device). And the modern design aesthetic in this market places a very low priority on recycling or sustainability.

It’s not just about consumer electronics or even farmers’ rights, as we discovered during the first panicky months of the pandemic. Next, hospitals were in dire need of repairing or maintaining critical medical equipment, but found that sometimes manufacturers did not provide proprietary repair manuals or provide spare parts. In March 2020, for example, an Italian hospital was unable to obtain valves for its ventilators from their manufacturer. Volunteers designed and 3D printed 100 replacements at a cost of $1 each. In normal times, these engineers could have been sued by the manufacturer for infringement of its intellectual property rights. So sometimes the right to repair isn’t just a geeky obsession but a matter of life and death.

what i read

Feline philosophy
Infirmity is a touching blog post by Venkatesh Rao about what he learned about aging from his elderly cat.

Difficult chapters
The fiction that dares not speak its name is a long and interesting essay by Morten Høi Jensen on the difficulties of those who write biographies of writers.

give us a minute
The billable hour is a trap that more and more of us are falling into is a thoughtful blog post by Tim Harford on the consequences of believing that time is money.

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