Ann Arbor Area Business Monthly
Small Business and the Internet

Right to Repair

April 2017

By Mike Gould

    But from the light I seen, someone killed the maintenance man…         Three 6 Mafia

Well, the independent maintenance man. The dealership maintenance man is doing just fine.

You Bought It, You Own it
… until it breaks or needs an update. Then you are at the mercy of the manufacturer. Especially if you are a farmer who uses, say, a John Deere (JD) tractor. Let’s say you are madly combining your corn in the short window of maximum weather/ripeness conditions. You are out in the middle of the north forty and the warning light comes on in your tractor cab, informing you of a problem with the AE-35 Unit that controls your muffler bearing or something. Everything shuts down and there you sit.

Now, being the experienced farm owner that you are, you happen to have a spare AE-35 back in your maintenance barn. So you swap it out, but you can’t use it because it requires a re-set of a software something something that only the dealer can provide with his magic box o’ software controls. And it’s in the middle of the fall harvest season so the dealer, who is a hundred miles away, is slammed and can’t send an expensive technician out until the middle of next week’s crop-flattening thunderstorm.

Farm machinery is as complex as any other mechanical object out there, maybe more so because of the heavy-duty environmental needs and complex computer stuff involved. You can control the way your tractor follows your crop layout from a GPS talking to a satellite, for instance. So today’s farmers are very tech savvy, and being a skilled mechanic is part and parcel of every large and small agriculturists’ skill set. There is a long and well-earned tradition of fixing your own stuff, and John Deere is throwing a very large cattle wrench (or whatever the ag version of a monkey wrench is) into the works.

Talk to Ivan
Farmers are now starting to buy and download counterfeit Ukrainian software from sketchy Eastern European sites to get their equipment working, free of the hoops their dealers are forcing them to jump through. There is an article about this at the Motherboard site and others, URLs below.

There is a legal battle over this (Right to Repair, or RtR) taking place in Kansas, Minnesota, Nebraska, Tennessee, Massachusetts, Illinois, New York and Wyoming. Proponents of RtR cite lack of control over things they’ve purchased, and manufacturers say they are protecting the public from possibly shoddy 3rd party parts and software.

IANAF (I am not a farmer)
… and this is a complex issue, but at the root of the problem is how far are we willing to allow our fates to pass into the control of large corporations? Farmers live in mortal fear that Deere has the capability to shut down their tractors if a remote scan detects non-factory parts or firmware (the software that runs everything). Whether this is possible is debatable, but it is something to consider when trying to rescue your crop from a mechanical failure.

There is an organization devoted to the pro RtR side, repair.org, URL below. You can get the manufacturers arguments at any of their sites. The John Deere story is here (excerpt):

Our number one priority is to design and manufacture safe equipment that provides value and performance for our customers, and software is a critical part of this. Software modifications increase the risk that equipment will not function as designed. As a result, allowing unqualified individuals to modify equipment software can endanger machine performance, in addition to Deere customers, dealers and others, resulting in equipment that no longer complies with industry and safety/environmental regulations…

I wasn’t able to find this on their website, this is from the cnet.com article, URL below. You can probably get more info from your local JD dealer. They make good points.

Today The Tractor, Tomorrow The Toaster?
How about cars? Most cars have computers in them, but there are a plethora of gadgets out there that will enable you to talk to them, re-set them and even tweak them to your specifications (if you know what you are doing). These are called OBD car code readers, and they can do things like re-set Check Engine lights and such (example URL below). The issue is that anyone can talk to their cars, but only JD dealers can talk to their tractors.

I spoke to car repair guru Steve Steeb about this. (Disclosure: he has been taking great care of my cars for decades and I just re-built his website.) Steve was kinda torn about this. On the one hand he has spent a lot of money on documentation and training for supporting auto manufacturers, and justly feels he can offer better support for car owners in need of service.

On the other hand, as a guy who grew up tinkering with things mechanical, he understands the need to support the backyard mechanic who wants to replace their own AE-35, after buying one from an auto parts store. Needless to say, the auto parts guys are in favor of RtR legislation. Dealerships, not so much.

The Mac side
We Mac support guys are very well acquainted with this phenomenon. If you have a desktop PC, you can replace and repair everything in your box with aftermarket parts, or build your own. Laptops, not so much; those are tricky.

On a Mac, unless it is something generic like memory, a hard drive, or battery, you need to buy parts from an authorized dealer, and have them do the repair. No biggie in a Mac-friendly town like Ann Arbor, but if you need something for your coke-splashed laptop and live in the hinterlands, you have some traveling to do.

Me? Tinkerist that I am, I support Right to Repair.

Right to Repair articles:
https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/why-american-farmers-are-hacking-their-tractors-with-ukrainian-firmware

https://www.wired.com/2017/03/right-to-repair-laws/

http://www.popularmechanics.com/technology/infrastructure/a25246/right-to-repair-legislation-under-fire-in-nebraska/

https://www.cnet.com/roadshow/news/farmers-using-hacked-firmware-to-bypass-john-deeres-software-stranglehold/

http://repair.org

OBD code reader:
https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B01C3HAHCS/

Mike Gould spends a lot of time fixing things. He was a mouse wrangler for the U of M for 20 years, runs the MondoDyne Web Works/Macintosh Training/Photography mega-mall, is a laser artist, directs the Illuminatus Lasers, and welcomes comments addressed to mgould@mondodyne.com.

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