Farmers are becoming increasingly dependent on data and software. This has its downsides, such as the discussion about the right to repair. Do farmers have the right to fix equipment when break downs occur, either by themselves or by those not certified by the original manufacturer? Future Farming looked at how dealers and farmers are seeking policy balance in the United States, Canada, Europe and Australia.
The “Right to Repair” movement takes on a patchwork appearance in North America, with different levels of government within Canada and the United States seeking to get ahead of perceived problems facing many industries and the tech-consuming public more generally.
Broadly speaking, and as in other political jurisdictions, right to repair issues in Canada and the United States stem from concerns around consumer electronics. Specifically, the ability for purchasers of a particular piece of technology such as a smart phone or a medial device to get the item repaired by individuals or companies other than the original manufacturer.
In the agriculture sector and other industries – including hospitality and manufacturing, amoung others – the issue shifts to whether purchasers have the right to fix equipment when break downs occur, either by themselves or by those not certified by the original manufacturer.
Two factors are involved – can equipment be fixed so as not to violate warranty but still allow the operator to continue working, and will the fix make the operator legally liable if an accident occurs?
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In Europe, according to the European Tractor Mother Regulation 167/2013, machine manufacturers have been obliged to share information since 2016 if an unauthorised technician requests it. In practice however, it proves not to be that simple for many technicians. - Photo: Henk Riswick
Modify electronic tools
The latter question is particularly pertinent since right to repair discussions have also included demands from some farmers and organizations for the ability to modify electronic tools (e.g. The Repair Association in the United States, which argues for complete and unfettered repair rights for purchased equipment). Currently, many digital platforms or means by which machinery can be augmented through programing changes are not permitted by equipment manufacturers.
Where it started
The right to repair question is not new. In Canada, for example, the issue has been repeatedly raised in parliament and through a variety of parliamentary committees in recent years. A wide swath of American States have similarly been debating the subject for years. Consumer groups and what is sometimes referred to as the “repair industry” has been largely involved in the discussion, which began in earnest over six years ago.
iPhones and other Apple products constitute one of the most common and high-profile examples of what is, as has been argued by right to repair proponents, a form of consumer entrapment where the buyer is forced to go to Apple for any and all repairs or functionality issues, or rely on the company for an outright replacement. This is managed by the company in different ways, including the use of specialty disassembly tools.
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Servicing a John Deere tractor in a Dutch workshop. In some parts of the world, like Australia, it is often difficult to access spare parts for agricultural machinery. - Photo: Jan Willem van Vliet
John Deere, for example, has been one of the most widely-criticized agricultural companies for what can be seen as its repair exclusivity policies – policies which some American right-to-repair proponents say violate purchaser rights provided under federal copyright laws.
Such monopolies are seen by many as unnecessarily expensive, wasteful, and time consuming for the purchaser. They have come to prominence as everyday-use digital tools became near universal in the public’s collective pocket, and in the field.
A complex and nuanced problem
Though viewed with distain or at least irritation, guaranteeing purchasers the right to make whatever changes they want via whomever they want, generates complicating questions.
Those opposed to complete opening of repair rights reiterate the danger and potential tool abuse such a decision could make possible.
On the manufacturer and dealer side, the prospect of fixing machines which are under warranty but were also altered in unapproved ways (e.g. reprogramming a tractor to run significantly hotter and faster than is recommended by the manufacturer) is hard to stomach. Additionally, opponents of widespread repair rights say the majority of repairs are still mechanical in nature, and can already be freely fixed by operators.
Concerns about the selling of used equipment which has been modified outside manufacturer recommendations is also a concern, in that the buyer no longer knows to what extend the safety or longevity of the machine may have been reduced. The potential theft of intellectual property has also been raised by companies like Apple.
As farm equipment gets increasingly digitized, however, seemingly inconsequential electronic issues like ill-timed error codes have been reported to cause pauses in production. Right to repair sympathizers thus argue for balance between liability and warranty concerns, and the ability to get things moving again when time is of the essence – even if the answer to the latter means simply turning off the offending digital tool, and driving on.
On top of it all are concerns about the aforementioned repair industry. Specifically, what will happen if repair restrictions eventually achieve an extreme where no person or company can repair a tool without being part of or directly accredited by the original manufacturer?
Such a scenario would, as is often argued, be very unfavourable for innumerable independent businesses of all sectors.
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Rebuilding Fendt Vario transmissions at an independent specialist workshop in the Netherlands. - Photo: Ronald Hissink
Current Canadian and American policy
Repair rights are tied to federal copyright laws in Canada and the United States. Thus, changes at the federal level are required to enshrine the ability for private citizens to access independent repair services, or fix things themselves.
Member of Parliament Brian May introduced a private members bill to the House of Commons early in 2021 to amend Canada’s current legislation to this end. As of this past June, Republican Joe Morelle introduced a similar bill to the United States House of Representatives. In both countries, though, individual provinces and states also play a role.
Right to repair legislation
In America, dozens of states have already enacted some form of right to repair legislation. An attempt to introduced similar legislation in Ontario failed under the province’s previous government. Should the federal level bill pass, however, each Canadian province will subsequently have to decide how to interpret and enforce the act.
Broadly speaking, right to repair legislation is touted as an attempt to get ahead of the ever-increasing digitization of all aspects of life, both public and private, thereby avoiding what many consider to be a dystopian future where citizens cannot change their own winter tires, open the back-end of a smartphone, or continue seeding crops when in-cab monitors go on the fritz.
Hope for balanced solutions
Farm groups are waiting to see how federal policy changes will take shape, and how individual states and provinces will enforce it. Many hope the presence of existing laws will aid in the development of more sensible, mutually-beneficial policies at each level. Indeed, the argument for balanced, common-sense policy appears to be growing in prominence on both sides of the right to repair conversation within North America’s agricultural sector.
More extreme positions on both ends of the spectrum still exist, of course. How unifying federal policies will be remains to be seen.
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Software specialists are becoming increasingly important in the tractor and machinery workshops. Unrestricted access to manufacturers' data is vital for them. - Photo: Bert Jansen
Australian farmers concerned about repair barriers
The National Farmers Federation in Australia says that agricultural machinery manufacturers refuse to supply technical information, diagnostic tools and parts to anyone outside their authorised network.
In a lengthy draft report of Australia’s Productivity Commission on the ‘right to repair’, inquiry participants raise concerns that product manufacturers are using their dominant position in the repair markets to impede independent repairers from accessing the necessary parts, information and equipment needed to repair products.
Of the concerns raised in submissions, about 80 per cent related to a ‘refusal to deal’, where manufacturers refused to provide repair supplies to anyone outside their authorised network.
Participants view the ‘right to repair’ as a focus on the removal of unnecessary barriers to repair, by ensuring that independent repairers and consumers have access to the spare parts, information and equipment needed to repair products, including access to embedded software in products.
For agricultural machinery, access to diagnostic software tools is a primary barrier. According to iFixit agricultural machinery manufacturers do not make diagnostic software available to anyone except their authorised technicians, making it impossible for farmers to debug their own equipment.
The National Farmers Federation says the ‘right to repair’ should serve a single purpose: to make illegal any barriers which prevent the owner of a product making repairs to that product themself or using a contractor of their choice.
For many participants it is clear that farm businesses have unequal bargaining power compared with manufacturers and sellers of agricultural machinery. The Victorian Farmers Federation says that unlike many other industries that are highly mechanized – such as mining – the majority of agricultural businesses are small family owned businesses, resulting in limited bargaining power against dealers and multinational manufacturers.
The Victorian Farmers Federation finds it is often difficult to access spare parts for agricultural machinery. “It has increasingly become commonplace for growers to be forced to pay for individual parts – even in current models – to be air freighted from overseas, rather than being imported in bulk by the dealers and manufacturers at a much cheaper rate”, the Federation points out.
The Federation would like to see a requirement for spare parts to be available for 10 years after the purchase. In Canada such a requirement was already put into effect. The Victorian Farmers Federation proposes that Australia adopt the same requirements for spare parts.
The Australian Competition & Consumer Commission has raised the idea of introducing an express obligation on manufacturers to disclose a minimum time that products, including products embedded with software, will be supported.
Managing Director Luke Chandler of John Deere in Australia and New Zealand says in a letter to the inquiry that John Deere rejects any allegation that owners of John Deere equipment are prevented or limited from performing repairs.
“John Deere considers that the markets for the sale of agricultural machinery and after-sales services and repair in Australia are competitive, and that there are no industry wide issues which would warrant legislative intervention beyond the retention of existing competition and consumer law protections”, Mr Chandler emphasises.
EU: Main concern at independent repairers
In Europe, in contradiction to many other countries and continents, it’s not the farmers themselves but mainly independent dealers and repair shops that are increasingly worried about the access to (official) parts and specially to repair and maintenance information (RMI). That’s because in general, European farmers are more likely to have closer relationships with – and interact more with – their local dealers.
Also, the distances between farmers and their local dealers are relatively small and thus service engineers are usually not more than one or a few hours away. Another factor with respect to digitisation is that mobile phone coverage and thus access to mobile data communication is generally quite good. Remote assistance therefore is a viable option.
According to the European Tractor Mother Regulation 167/2013, machine manufacturers have in fact been obliged to share information since 2016 if an unauthorised technician requests it. To this end, various RMI portals have already been put online such as rmi.agcopartsandservice.com, rmi.sdfgroup.com and rmi.deere.com but until late last year, there still was no protocol for how a manufacturer can actually make that information available.
It was not until then before two new ISO standards to regulate this were finally adopted. ISO 22172-1 summarises the requirements for the operation and user-friendliness of an RMI web portal and ISO 22172-2 contains all the details about plug connections for on-board diagnostics.
Both now form the protocol for manufacturers to make their repair and maintenance information available. The RMI protocol is to ensure non-discriminatory access to the required information in order to guarantee fair competition between brand dealers and independent mechanics. This relates to access, costs, troubleshooting help, available languages and to how sophisticated the programs (wiring schemes!) are.
European dealer and distributor branch organisation CLIMMAR has been an advocate and strong lobbyist for the rights of its members in 16 European countries since 1953. Through taking part in the WGAT (Working Group on Agricultural Tractors) meetings, its representative Per Hedetoft, it succeeded in an agreement with European manufacturers’ branch organisation CEMA to set 1 July 2021 as the date for vehicle manufacturers to provide the connection to the vehicle according to ISO 22172-2.
This means that new (and facelifted) vehicle models introduced after 1 July 2021, must have at least one diagnostic plug that complies with SAE J1939-13 (type 1 or 2), an Isobus diagnostic plug or a correct OBD II power plug. For that vehicle model, the RMI portal must also work according to the ISO standard.
CLIMMAR says it’s very curious about the experiences with the standard once the vehicles first come to dealer’s workshops for repair and/or maintenance later this year or next year after the warranty periods.
Co-authors: René Groeneveld and René Koerhuis