Ken Helt, a farmer in southeastern Iowa, just wants to keep his tractors running. John Deere has made that hard to do. The tractor manufacturer promised to make parts of its repair systems available to consumers by the end of 2021, but it missed that deadline. The deal Deere proposed is similar to announcements made recently by Apple, Google, and Samsung. Facing increasing pressure from the government, these companies have said they’ll make it easier for people to fix their own stuff by providing customers with manuals and selling them parts.
But as Helt has found with John Deere, corporations don’t always live up to their promises and the public should be wary of the promises made by Apple and others. John Deere promised something similar and hasn’t delivered. Worse, as Helt’s experience shows, schemes like what Deere and Apple are proposing still leaves too much control in the hands of the manufacturer. Corporate promises aren’t a replacement for national right-to-repair laws.
Helt shared his story with U.S. PIRG, a public interest advocacy group that fights for the right-to-repair. Helt told U.S. PIRG that he’d been having trouble with a John Deere 7280 tractor for about a year. It was constantly stopping, as often as once an hour, and even broke down on the highway.
Helt was pretty sure it was a problem with the transmission, but because of John Deere’s complicated proprietary software there was no way Helt could diagnose the problem let alone repair it himself. It’s not that he couldn’t, it’s that the tractor was manufactured to lock him out.
To fix the tractor, Helt had to go to a repair store backed by John Deere. There, a tech could access the Dealer Technical Assistance Center (DTAC), the Product Improvement Programs (PIPS), and ADVISOR. The triumvirate of programs is crucial. DTAC is a database of error codes, PIP helps fix the codes, and ADVISOR allows the repair tech to pair replacement parts with the tractor. Without these programs, it’s impossible to do the repair.
The tech told Helt that it wasn’t, in fact, the transmission but also wouldn’t show Helt the information he’d just pulled up in DTAC, PIP, and ADVISOR. Later, Helt was able to talk to a different repair tech who gave him the full story: it was, in fact, the transmission.
“If you have a dealer who doesn’t give a hoot, they don’t bother to tell you,” Helt told U.S. PIRG. “Farmers should be able to go in, get the software, and see what’s wrong with the thing so they can get it fixed.” The repairs took about a year and cost Helt $27,000. That’s not including wages lost from not being able to work the land because of a faulty tractor.
What John Deere is proposing to give Helt and other farmers access to is a customer oriented version of ADVISOR. It’ll be a modified version of one of the three separate programs farmers need to fix their tractors. "The thing that worries me most is that they have the power to not tell you what's wrong with your tractor,” Helt said. “If I buy a new tractor, are they going to tell me that there's a problem, or wait until my warranty is out so they can charge me? I just don't trust those guys."
Google, Apple, Samsung and others are opening up to consumer repairs. Both Google and Samsung are partnering with iFixit to offer parts and repair tools to people. Apple is doing everything in-house and it’s unclear what the limitations will be on their offerings to consumers.
This is all good. It’s good that these tech companies are relinquishing control over their repair monopolies. But if their new repair efforts end up similar to what John Deere is offering, they’re not going to provide users with what they need. And nothing will be as good as federal right-to-repair laws that encourage the competition of a robust secondary repair market.
"Manufacturers' piecemeal repair commitments are like applying a band-aid where you need surgery—they might help a bit for now, but they're not going to solve the problem,” Kevin O'Reilly, Right to Repair Campaign Director at U.S. PIRG, told Motherboard. “Right to Repair laws are what will solve this problem, and the fact that manufacturers are making concessions shows that we are in a position to demand them."