In September 2018, the Equipment Dealers Association signed an agreement with John Deere in which the company would begin voluntarily making repair tools, software guides, and diagnostic equipment available for ordinary farmers to purpose beginning January 1, 2021. We’re now well over two months into 2021 and, as a new report details, John Deere isn’t keeping up its end of the bargain.
The purpose of the agreement between John Deere and the EDA was to deal with the increasingly onerous software lockouts John Deere baked into its tractors. Farmers have been increasingly forced to visit a John Deere dealership for even trivial repairs because once-simple replacements now require dealer-authorized equipment to authenticate the hardware. The deal with the EDA took the pressure off of states to pass right-to-repair legislation. At the time, ExtremeTech characterized it as “throwing farmers under the bus” because of numerous structural deficiencies.
But those deficiencies, like a failure to define the need for fair and reasonable pricing on spare parts (or the need for purchasable spare parts at all), are less important here. The problem isn’t that John Deere has balked at implementing part of the agreement. It’s that John Deere apparently hasn’t lifted a finger to implement it. Both Vice and the US Public Interest Research Group (US PIRG) recently followed-up on how the rollout of this new information has gone.
Kevin O’Reilly of US PIRG called 12 John Deere dealerships across six states. He reports: “Of those, 11 told me that they don’t sell diagnostic software and the last one gave me an email of someone to ask for the tools. I sent an email two days ago and haven’t heard anything back.” Vice then performed its own survey, calling 9 different dealerships in 7 different states outside of California and three inside of it. One California dealership offered to try and help with the problem, the other two immediately stated no such information or manuals were available.
John Deere, Industry Trade Groups Insist Situation Is Fixed
According to John Deere and the Association of Equipment Manufacturers, a major industry lobbying group, there’s absolutely nothing wrong. The AEM claims “comprehensive repair and diagnostic information is now available for the vast majority of the tractor and combine market through authorized dealers.” When US PIRG asked AEM to provide even one example of a company actually making this information available, the trade group failed to respond.
At a right-to-repair meeting with the Florida Farm Bureau, John Deere customer support manager Aaron Vance made the following public comments: “Many of these manufactures, ourselves included, we provide diagnostic tools, repair manuals, parts. Diagnostic and repair information for you, the producer has always been around, you’ve always had parts, you’ve always been able to get manuals, paper and such,” he said. “You have the right to repair your own equipment.”
There is very little evidence to support this claim, particularly the “always had parts” and “always been able to get manuals” portions. Vice located one farmer in Montana, Walter Sweitzer, whose dealership agreed to provide him with software, equipment, and training to upkeep his own tractor, for just $8,000. His story appears to be virtually unique.
There are up to 125 sensors in a John Deere tractor, and an error code on any of them can put a device into Limp mode, where it can be driven, but not otherwise operated. It can take up to a month for a piece of equipment to get a simple error code cleared, and it can cost a great deal of money. According to Kansas farmer Jared Wilson, he lost an estimated $30,000 -to$60,000 in income one season because it took 32 days for the dealer to repair a mechanical valve that failed on his fertilizer spreader. Had the failure occurred on an older piece of equipment, Wilson is fairly certain he could have done the work himself.
No one wants access to John Deere’s software so they can steal source code or muck with emissions sensors. The farmers that have gone looking for hacked software available online aren’t trying to monetize John Deere’s intellectual property; they’re trying to clear error codes and regain the ability to fix simple problems.
Right-to-repair is an issue that affects almost everyone. And while manufacturers from Apple to John Deere have tried to make it an issue of security and IP protection, this is actually about holding on to the income stream that a repair monopoly represents. It’s rent-seeking behavior, not an actual benefit to farmers or their customers, otherwise known as “people who eat.” Farmers and farming communities do not presently appear to have access to the diagnostic software and manuals that John Deere previously promised to make available, and the deficiency is not limited to a single state or regional area.
Back in 2018, John Deere boasted that this agreement meant right-to-repair legislation wasn’t necessary. Three years later, the company is demonstrating just how necessary it is by failing to abide by its own voluntary commitments.
Feature image by Madereugeneandrew, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons