Here at Country Guide we’ve discussed the so-called “right to repair” machinery debate, most recently when a joint press release from a major dealer association and AEM, the association that represents most North American ag equipment manufacturers, announced concessions to allow for more access to the “brain” of machines to facilitate repairs.
Our previous discussion generated some feedback, and it’s clear there are strong opinions on the issue. While the topic seems to have mostly faded in the ag sector, it rages on elsewhere. Have those industry concessions appeased tractor and combine owners who were concerned about it? Or, was this simply an issue that really has its epicentre elsewhere and just happened to drag agriculture into it?
“Absolutely,” says Eric Wareham, vice-president of government affairs at the Western Equipment Dealers Association (WEDA). “I think we’re just kind of thrown in the mix by people who fix iPhones or work on consumer products, and they just throw tractors in there. When we show up at (U.S.) state capitals to discuss this, it’s very apparent the people on the other side of the aisle do not understand the ag industry.”
WEDA is a cross-border association that represents ag equipment dealers across much of the U.S. and Canada. As you’d expect, not every issue resonates in both countries with the same volume. Right-to-repair seems one of those with different volume settings on each side of the 49th parallel.
“I don’t see the issue arising in Canada as much,” Wareham adds.
Nevertheless, Canada has been drawn into it, and the outcome of the debate in the U.S. has already affected what Canadian owners can expect from manufacturers and dealers, at least when it comes to co-operation and help in making on-farm repairs without a dealership technician pulling up in a service truck.
First of all, here’s some background on the subject.
“It’s a little bit different in Canada than in the U.S.,” says Wareham. “But it’s similar, and it all comes down to a treaty signed by both countries. Basically, countries agree we have this rising intellectual property that isn’t physical, but is proprietary nonetheless. We needed some protection if we were going to stimulate (future) investment and development. We had mechanization that increased productivity for a long time; now it’s technology. That’s the foundation for it.”
The increasing digital component and the cost of creating software for it has given manufacturers a strong desire to protect their investments, and with good reason: it’s no longer the iron that impresses buyers as much as how “smart” and efficient a machine is.
No manufacturer wants to give up its perceived digital edge. And farmers’ longstanding desire to work on their equipment has propelled the issue forward. Add to that the need to cut costs due to falling farm-gate revenues in the U.S. and the debate has developed more momentum down south.
“Net farm income has declined in the U.S. over 50 per cent in the last five years, and they’re looking for ways to cut costs,” agrees Wareham. “They want to work on their own equipment, but they’re finding it’s now a lot more difficult to do because of the technology. And there are certain protections to that technology.”
That said, Wareham believes the whole debate in the ag sector has gone a little off track. He thinks repairing and modifying are two terms that have been mixed together, and each deserves to be addressed differently. Manufacturers have decided to clearly define both, allowing owners one but not the other when it comes to digital systems.
“I know in Canada and the U.S, there has never been a farmer prosecuted for repairing their own tractor,” Wareham says. “So I always say the label on this issue, ‘right to repair,’ is a misnomer. It makes it sound like we’re infringing on a right a farmer has, which is completely inaccurate. A farmer completely has the right to perform repairs and even circumvent technology protection measures (relevant laws in the U.S.).”
In theory, that’s true. But the trouble with trying to repair late-model farm equipment is its complexity, and that manuals, special diagnostic tools and training haven’t been available to anyone outside the dealer networks. Without those aids, on-farm repair by an owner really isn’t a practical option. The pending changes agreed to by the manufacturers and dealers last year, however, have addressed that. And Wareham thinks the new policy is enough to satisfy any honest need for typical repairs.
“Going forward, there is an industry commitment to provide a lot of the things right-to-repair advocates are seeking: manuals, specialty tools, diagnostic tools,” Wareham explains. “I think it does go far enough. I think it does take care of 99 per cent of folks out there who are just trying to perform repairs or do diagnostics. I think the industry from the OEM and dealer side is very aware we need to decrease downtime. If there is anything in the way, like a lack of rural broadband, some of the remote diagnostic capabilities aren’t there. So for authorized users or owners who just want to get their machinery running again, this gives them the tools to do that. And I think that is for the benefit of the dealers as well.”
But don’t expect the new access being provided by manufacturers will let you get too far into your tractor’s brain.
“I think for the most part, a lot of the right-to-repair (debate) goes back to mobile phones, the automotive or truck industry,” says Larry Hertz, WEDA’s vice-president for Canada. “It’s kind of moved into agriculture, but I think for the most part the concern is modifying something that’s going to create a problem.
“Do you want somebody monkeying around with the thing who isn’t a certified technician? That’s the concern. And then, what about safety issues? And what about when we get more into autonomous tractors. Do people really want to be monkeying around with this stuff?”
“What we’ve said is you have a right to repair,” Wareham adds. “But you do not have a right to modify so you are deleting emissions standards or increasing horsepower to the extent you’re putting stress on that equipment that it was not intended for.”
At the moment, the only ones allowed to delve that deep into a tractor or combine’s digital operating systems are service technicians from brand dealerships. Wareham says from a developer’s perspective, it’s essential to keep everyone else out.
“We want to protect that technology from getting reverse engineered. Then someone copies it and sells it,” he says. “We see that in Eastern Europe and Ukraine. There are a lot of issues with China pirating intellectual property and that’s a big issue. If we open up the floodgates, then we’re not going to see the type of investment that has created this increase in productivity.”
Of course, not everyone with an interest in the issue wants to pirate the hard work of computer engineers who have created all that clever software code. Non-brand repair shops would just like to get a piece of the action by being able to work on late-model equipment. That has generally been allowed in the automotive sector, where OBDII has become the industry standard for reading onboard computers. But ag equipment manufacturers have all gone their own way with their own proprietary digital engineering.
“What we’ve seen is there are third-party aftermarket folks who want to have some skin in the game in this industry and perform some of the repairs,” says Wareham. “And that’s where it becomes problematic, because they’re the ones that want access to specialty tools, access to firmware and advanced diagnostic tools, and manufacturers just aren’t willing to allow that access to those outside their dealership network.
“It’s not just tinkering, this isn’t just consumer products like cell phones. This is more of a business-to-business, its dealers and farmers who are going to be affected by this.”
So far, several U.S. states have had proposed right-to-repair legislation on their agendas for some time, and all the major brands have actively opposed them. That opposition may well be what has — at least in part — caused all of that legislation to stall. Wareham thinks that’s a good thing.
“There has been no right-to-repair legislation passed in the U.S.,” he says. “It’s very adversarial. There are a lot of unintended consequences from this legislation. It forces manufacturers to deal with people that they don’t have existing relationships with, which violates the conditions of contracts manufacturers have with dealers who have areas of responsibility that are exclusive.
“Legislation is kind of a one-size-fits-all. I think when you allow people to get together and figure out problems in stakeholder groups, you come up with better solutions. And I think this is one of them. I think everyone is on the same page. We want to increase uptime and increase productivity.”
Wareham adds that he isn’t surprised by the relative upheaval that the digital revolution has caused. Instead, he thinks the current debate is the natural result of the evolution of technology.
“It’s a revolution of sorts,” Wareham says. “When you have an industrial or digital revolution, everyone is kind of in a learning curve and kind of figuring out a lot of these issues as we go along. I think the key is to not make it adversarial.”