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The real costs of ‘right to repair’

Allen Schaeffer for Progressive Dairyman Published on 06 May 2019

I just had a virtual look inside some farmer’s toolbox and expected to see familiar things – adjustable wrenches, assorted nuts and bolts, an oily rag, pliers, pry bar, hammer, starter fluid and penetrating oil.

Instead I saw some unexpected things: a scan tool, some computer memory cards, USB cable, website address and Wi-Fi password scribbled on the napkin of the local diner.

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What would a farmer be doing with computer chips and a software code-scanning tool out in the shed? The simple answer is: probably something they shouldn’t be doing – messing around with the tractor’s electronics and computer.

Equipment

The mix of old and new equipment on most farms highlights the clear technological divide; older tractors run by mostly mechanical or hydraulic controls for almost every function. Repairs and adjustments are often intuitive; a few tweaks of a set screw or a basic throttle cable adjustment here or there was generally all you needed to get an engine back running smoothly.

Not so easy or obvious for new technology in today’s world.

Today’s tractor has miles of wires from sensors and solenoids all connected to a computer, feeding the dashboard indicators and controlling and communicating with everything. In fact, today’s tractor contains more lines of software code than the early versions of the space shuttle, thanks largely to the necessity of achieving the EPA’s emissions requirements that give us today’s tractors with near-zero levels of emissions.

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Working on one of the newer-generation machines is not like the older tractors. More complex systems are understood completely by highly trained and equipped dealer service technicians with the latest diagnostic tools to quickly identify and fix a problem and get the right parts.

Yet, amazingly, some have found temptation and taken the leap into a dangerous place – probing and reprogramming the tractors’ electronics and computer controls and installing custom software chips and programming to “boost engine performance.” The practice is often referred to as “chipping.”

Some will say, “Wait a minute, I paid a lot of money for this tractor, and it’s mine, and I’m going to do with it whatever I please and that includes boosting performance with new software programming or a chip I bought online.” The notion of “right to repair” actually was borne out of frustration with the level of sophistication with today’s technology requiring manufacturer-only repairs that edge out independent repair shops or DIY-ers. It’s an issue mostly for a whole range of technology – cellphones, electronics, and it turns out farm equipment gets caught up just the same.

Is it your “right”?

The right for a farmer to repair his or her equipment does not extend to an unlawful right to modify its software. Manufacturers spend billions of dollars to design, manufacture and sell engines and equipment that must undergo a range of tests and certifications by the EPA and other agencies and entities to ensure its safety and compliance with government standards. A big part of that approval goes back to the central computer controlling the engine and equipment’s functions and the proprietary software that seamlessly integrates and controls everything.

Can you? Should you?

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Think through this one: By tampering with the computer/ECM (enterprise content management), you’ll be voiding any warranty on your machine, so repair costs are all yours going forward. If the machine is financed, be sure to check the fine print about what is expressly prohibited during the term of the loan when the bank owns more of the machine than the farmer. These prohibitions alone should be a deterrent.

Second, when it’s time to trade up or sell, dealers or private buyers might first be curious about what’s been done but will probably balk at the idea of buying a machine or tractor that has been chipped or customized. Immediately, they would wonder, “What else has been done to this tractor I won’t know about until it breaks or causes an accident?” Let the buyer beware.

Third, there are safety concerns from messing around with tractor code programming. Tweaking fuel or horsepower settings to boost ground speeds makes the machine run outside of its designed parameters and, over time, increases wear on components. Whether that is wearing down a bearing, blowing out a hydraulic pump, PTO or belt at an inconvenient time, or worse, creating a safety hazard to the operator or others standing near the machine, that’s an outcome no one wants.

The idea of “right to repair” is one now being talked about in several state legislatures around the country; it is broad and captures far more than farm equipment. It started with desired access by individual repair shops to fix things like cellphones or electronics repairs. Proponents of “right to repair” have advocated for overly broad laws that would allow for unfettered access to the software that governs on-board technology on farm equipment. Giving access to the source code would not only undermine manufacturers’ innovation and intellectual property, it would more alarmingly risk machine safety and performance.

The message that customers want to be able to work on their own machines has been heard loud and clear by manufacturers and dealers, who have made an industry commitment to make available the tools farmers need to navigate onboard technology. In the near future, end users will have access to on-board diagnostics tools via in-cab display or wireless interface, electronic diagnostic service tools, along with training on how to use each of the tools, and manuals, product guides and service information. By 2021 (or in some cases earlier), customers should be able to expect the same level of information for their tractors and combines across manufacturing brands. A number of manufacturers already make many of these materials available. This solution makes so-called “right to repair” legislation unnecessary.

In the end, you want reliable, long-lasting machines that enable you to get the job done and smart policy to go along with it. “Right to repair” legislation and messing around with a tractor’s computer programming both have the potential to cost more and create more problems in the end, and that won’t leave many feeling very chipper.  end mark

PHOTO: Running equipment. Photo by Fredric Ridenour.

Visit R2R Solutions if you want to know more on right to repair.

Allen Schaeffer is the executive director at the Diesel Technology Forum. Email Allen Schaeffer

Allen Schaeffer
  • Allen Schaeffer

  • Executive Director
  • Diesel Technology Forum
  • Email Allen Schaeffer

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