Luke Gakstatter has no problem with a farmer turning a wrench. But reaching for the laptop might be a different story.

“We absolutely support a customer's right to repair equipment,” Gakstatter, John Deere’s senior vice president for aftermarket and customer support, said in an interview with Agri-Pulse. “Where we draw the line is we don't support the customer's ability to modify embedded software on equipment.”

As farm equipment involves more and more technology, some producers have expressed frustration over repairs that involve tools outside of what they might have in their onboard toolbox. Some have even expressed concern that their downtime might even be elongated by a wait for a company-certified technician.

The issue also has the attention of more than 30 states, according to The Repair Association. Farm groups have also adopted policies on right to repair; the National Farmers Union policy book supports “fair repair and right to repair legislation that would allow farmers and independent mechanics access to diagnostic software, information, and other tools in order to repair modern equipment.”

An American Farm Bureau Federation spokesperson said that organization’s policy “calls for mechanisms that allow farmers to repair their equipment in a timely fashion with minimal downtime and without unreasonably expensive tools or diagnostic equipment.” The policy does not, however, “seek access to proprietary coding or the ability to reprogram computers on the equipment.”

As for Gakstatter, he said the company has focused its efforts on educating what John Deere does — and does not — support, something that he tells Agri-Pulse has led to good discussions with industry and lawmakers.

This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

Q: A lot of times when people hear the right to repair conversation, they immediately think ‘This is equipment company ‘X’ trying to get me to take my equipment to their authorized dealer to pay exorbitant amounts of money for repairs.’ What does that definition of right to repair get right? And what does it get wrong?

Luke Gakstatter

Luke Gakstatter, John Deere

A: First and foremost, we have continued to make all the information — parts and publications — available for our customers to acquire on their own. That has and will continue to be made available. Second, the industry put forth a couple of years back some statements of commitment, and actions that (original equipment manufacturers) would take to support right to repair, and I'm super proud to say that John Deere meets all of those commitments. And then third, just to make it even easier, and to make sure that there's not any confusion, we've created a page on our website where a customer can go and see what our position is on it. And more importantly, on that one page, understand all the tools, publications, and even diagnostic tools that are available to them that can help repair their equipment.

Q: You mentioned that you support the consumer's right to repair but not to modify software. In your mind — and in John Deere’s mind — where does software stop and hardware start? And vice versa?

A: There are really three important things that we have great concerns about allowing modification to embedded software to occur on John Deere products. First and foremost, by allowing that, we could be jeopardizing the operator's safety or other’s safety around that equipment. Second, I think there would be significant concerns in allowing modification of that software due to emission regulations and what are the environmental impacts. And then third, I think the integrity of the product long term without really understanding if that product was being operated within the design parameters for which it was created. So those are the reasons why we have concerns about the right to modify and again, continue to support the right to repair.

The point on software is a great question. And when we look at it today, a very small percentage of our repairs actually require a software update. We're continuing to make the software update process even easier for our customers than it has been in the past. But I think holding up the software piece of this as a reason that John Deere isn’t complying with right to repair, which some have done, I think is not an accurate portrayal of how we believe we've supported a customer’s right to repair equipment.

Q: We've seen a number of state legislatures take up this issue. What has been John Deere’s company response to that? And what have those legislative attempts looked like?

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A: As we've gone out and engaged in a number of states where legislation has come up, our number-one objective has been to educate. And it's been really interesting to sit down with state lawmakers and be able to explain our story and talk about the tools that we're making available for our customers, clearly delineate between the right to repair and the right to modify embedded software.

Q: Obviously we're not going to be putting less software in machinery anytime soon. How do you as an equipment company plan to address this issue going forward with producers and third-party repair technicians to potentially solve or come to some semblance of resolution here?

A: You're right, our products are using more technology than they have in the past, and it's probably fair to say that in the future, our products are going to continue to rely on technology to add value for customers. You think about some of the tools that we rely on today, such as being able to give customers real-time alerts about what's happening on their equipment that allows them in some cases to avoid a downtime failure, or if there is a failure to understand what that is and allow that customer, if they so choose to, to repair it and really automate that process. For some customers today, they can go online and actually see their equipment and see, if it throws one of these alerts, how they monitor and manage that can really help them utilize that technology to their benefit and lower their total cost of ownership and increase their uptime.

Another important tool that we have and will continue to make available is something that we call Customer Service Advisor. It is our top-of-the-line diagnostic tool that we make available to our dealer technicians where they actually hook up to a machine and understand what the issues are and the best way to solve those issues. And that's something that we make available today for customers if they so choose.

Q: I understand the usage of the remote diagnostics your company offers went up quite a bit during the pandemic. But are there limitations to the ability of a technician to connect to a broken-down producer given potential connectivity issues?

A: There are some limitations that are out there. But the reality is, the remote diagnostic tools that you speak of have been a huge win for John Deere customers and John Deere dealers. And you're absolutely right that the events of the last 12 months, with the pandemic, have allowed customers to embrace that even more than we saw pre-pandemic. Maybe just to offer a great example of how that can work today is if a customer has an issue and they're out in the field, they can then connect with their dealer. The dealer, if the customer wants them to, has the ability to remote in to see what's happening on that machine, offer them, ‘here's something you can do to keep yourself up and running.’ Or in some cases, if there is a failure, the dealer can actually understand what the failure is and work with that customer to get them back up and running much quicker than we would have seen in the past. 

Q: Where do you see this issue going? And what do you all see ahead of you in terms of potential solutions?

A: I'm not sure I'm very good at predicting the future, but I can tell you that from a John Deere perspective, we are going to continue to do everything we can to make the tools, the information, the diagnostics available for customers to support, maintain, repair their equipment. We are going to continue to make sure we're telling the story and delineating between right to repair and the right to modify so that people understand clearly that John Deere does support the right to repair.

Q: I have to imagine there's a pretty fine line between providing additional diagnostic assistance to an owner or a third-party repair technician and also protecting your company's intellectual property.

A: Yeah, you're absolutely right. And that is a fine line, but we're comfortable with what we provide today, in terms of our publications, and even this remote diagnostic tool, we're comfortable that we can protect our intellectual property yet give all the diagnostic tools and information and help people repair their equipment

Q: So a farmer can still do their own oil change?

A: Absolutely, absolutely. And it does not require a Customer Service Advisor to do your own oil change and a number of basic maintenance and repair items. They don't require that level of diagnostic software to do so.

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