Why your ability to repair a tractor could also be a matter of life and death | John Naughton

It was one of the few pieces of cheery news to emerge from the war in Ukraine. Russian looters, no doubt with the assistance of Russian troops, stole 27 pieces of John Deere farm equipment, worth about $5m, from a dealership in Melitopol. The kit was shipped to Chechnya, where a nasty surprise awaited the crooks. Their shiny new vehicles had, overnight, become the world’s heaviest paperweights: the dealership from which they had been stolen had “bricked” them remotely, using an inbuilt “kill-switch”.

This news item no doubt warmed the cockles of many a western heart. But it would have raised only hollow laughs from farmers in US states who are customers of John Deere and are mightily pissed off, because although they have paid small fortunes (up to $800,000 apparently) for the firm’s machinery, they are unable to service or repair them when they go wrong. These gigantic vehicles are no longer purely mechanical devices, but depend on lots of electronic control units (ECUs) to operate everything from the air conditioning to the driver’s seat to the engine. The ICUs run software that is essential to the operation, maintenance and repair of the machine. But only John Deere has access to that computer code and without employing a company technician the tractor’s software won’t even recognise (let alone allow) replacement parts from another manufacturer.

So what happens when your tractor develops a fault? You can’t go to your local garage, so you have to call on a John Deere dealership and wait for it to send a technician – at its convenience, not yours. Vice’s Motherboard column has an interesting story about how that can play out. A Missouri farmer named Jared Wilson discovered that the air conditioning in the cab of his tractor was kaput just when he was about to plant his soya bean crop. The tractor would run, but it would be baking hot in the cab, a closed glass sauna atop a huge hot engine in the heat of the Missouri spring. So he called the local John Deere dealership and asked for an appointment. The manager told him he wasn’t a “profitable customer”, he says, which he took as a veiled threat.

Now why might that be? Turns out that Wilson is both a highly articulate critic of John Deere and a vigorous campaigner for a legal “right to repair”. His evidence to the Missouri House of Representatives when it was considering a bill to provide that right was a sight to behold.

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

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

That vigour will be needed because there’s a huge industrial lobby devoting to resisting – or slowing – legislation to provide a right to repair. The weapons of choice for lobbyists include intellectual property law, trade secrets, consumer safety and competition issues. What they gloss over 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 up to No 13, even though the iPhone 6 is still a perfectly functional device). And modern design aesthetics in that marketplace put a very low priority on recycling or sustainability.

This isn’t just about consumer electronics or even farmers’ rights by the way, as we discovered during the early, panic-stricken months of the pandemic. Then, hospitals urgently needed to repair or service critical medical equipment, but found that sometimes manufacturers wouldn’t provide proprietary repair manuals or supply replacement 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 a dollar each. In normal times, those engineers might well have been prosecuted by the manufacturer for infringing its intellectual property rights. So sometimes the right to repair isn’t just a geeky obsession but a matter of life or death.

What I’ve been reading

Feline philosophy
Infirmity is a touching blogpost by Venkatesh Rao on what he’s learned about ageing from his elderly cat.

Difficult chapters
The Fiction That Dare Not Speak its Name is a long, interesting essay by Morten Høi Jensen on the travails of those who write biographies of writers.

Give us a minute
The Billable Hour Is a Trap Into Which More and More of us Are Falling is a thoughtful blogpost by Tim Harford on the consequences of believing that time is money.

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