Phone manufacturers that have placed obstacles in the way of independent repair for years have started making concessions left and right. Google announced earlier this month it will be partnering with iFixit to provide repair parts and information directly to consumers for most Pixel phones. Samsung made a similar statement a week before that, and Apple promised last November to implement its own DIY-repair program. These announcements follow years of campaigning for the freedom to fix the stuff we own—and well-timed shareholder resolutions.
Does this mean that we are on our way to a world where we can fix everything we own? As a member of the Right to Repair movement, which campaigns to achieve that future, I’m skeptical.
For one, Apple is still yet to follow through on their commitment to roll out their Self Repair program early this year.
But Right to Repair isn’t only about smartphones. Manufacturers of all kinds of digital products—everything from dishwashers to HVAC systems, ventilators to farmers’ tractors—restrict access to necessary software tools, locking out independent repairers and requiring consumers to hire the manufacturer’s authorized technicians.
Commitments from tractor manufacturers have fallen short
That puts farmers in the same category as everyday consumers. Farmers can’t make many repairs on their half-a-million-dollar tractors without intervention from a manufacturer-affiliated dealer. In addition to inflating costs, that can mean repair delays of up to a month. Such delays during planting season can have a huge impact on farmers’ bottom lines—each day farmers don’t get seed in the ground, their profits evaporate with the morning dew.
I’ve worked closely with farmers such as Ken Helt, who grows corn and soybeans in southeastern Iowa, to show lawmakers how we need Right to Repair reforms to address farmers’ problems in the same way we need them to address the problems with consumer electronics.
So, when John Deere announced last month that it would sell its Customer Service ADVISOR repair software directly to consumers, why didn’t Ken and I celebrate?
For one, the announcement is long overdue: Deere and other manufacturers promised in 2018 to make diagnostic tools available to farmers at the beginning of 2021. Deere failed to meet its own deadline.
But the problem goes beyond unmet commitments. Customer Service ADVISOR won’t free farmers such as Ken from being shackled to the dealer for many repairs.
Farmers need access to all repair tools, not just the ones manufacturers willingly provide
Take the year-long repair saga that Ken finally solved last April. Ken says his John Deere 7280 tractor was rolling to a stop as often as once an hour. It disrupted his work and was a safety hazard—one night his tractor stopped in the middle of a four-lane highway, exposing him to oncoming traffic.
Ken told his dealer technician that he thought his transmission was faulty, but the tech insisted that wasn’t the case. Without access to the Dealer Technical Assistance Center (DTAC), a database of common failures, the Product Improvement Programs (PIPs) designed to address them, or the dealer-level Service ADVISOR, which provides additional diagnostic information and the ability to pair a serialized part to the machine at the end of the repair process, Helt had to take the tech’s word for it. Farmers and independent mechanics cannot buy these tools.
To make the problem worse, John Deere has pushed many of its dealerships to consolidate into chain networks. Our research found that there is one Deere chain for every 12,018 American farms and every 5.3 million acres of American farmland. Most of the dealerships in Ken’s area are owned by the same chain—the closest competitor is a 100-mile roundtrip away.
Helt finally got the full story when he stopped at a Nebraska dealership during a family road trip. The tech pulled up DTAC and found that there were 9 PIPs on his tractor’s transmission. A year and some $27,000 in repair fees later, Ken finally could use his tractor normally again.
“If you have a dealer who doesn’t give a hoot, they don’t bother to tell you,” Ken told me. “Farmers should be able to go in, get the software, and see what’s wrong with the thing so they can get it fixed.”
Even if Ken had access to Deere’s less-comprehensive Customer Service ADVISOR, it would have been of little help. He would need access to DTAC to find the problem and dealer-level Service ADVISOR to finalize the repair by pairing a part to the tractor, or the option to hire an independent mechanic who has access to those tools.
We need to enshrine the Right to Repair in law
Nebraska Farmers Union President John Hansen says manufacturers will do as much as is necessary and as little as is possible. His wisdom spans across device types, which is why it is critical that we enshrine a consumer’s right to repair in law. It can come from state legislation such as California Sen. Susan Eggman (Stockton) introduced in her home state, a federal bill such as the Fair Repair Act introduced by introduced by Sens. Ben Ray Lujan (D-NM), Cynthia Lummis (R-WY) and Ron Wyden (D-OR), or action from the Federal Trade Commission. But market solutions alone are not going to solve the problem.
In the meantime, too many farmers, including Ken, will still be reliant on their dealers. Too many smartphone owners will still be reliant on the manufacturer. We’ll wait to pop the champagne until that changes.
Director, Campaign for the Right to Repair, PIRG
Kevin helps run U.S. PIRG's Right to Repair campaign. He got his start as a Green Corps organizer, where he worked with Mighty Earth to call on Bridgestone to stop deforestation and human exploitation for natural rubber. He also led an effort to get a majority of both houses of the Massachusetts state Legislature to co-sponsor the 100% Renewable Energy Act. Kevin lives in Somerville, Massachusetts, where he enjoys reading, running and rooting for his Oakland A's from afar.