Screens that can display information about engine RPMs, speed, GPS tracking information, even radio volume and climate control information. Big screens, little screens, flat screens, touch screens; technology has made the days of strict reliance on analog gauges a thing of the past.
But those screens and the computing power behind them are also at the heart of a debate between equipment companies and the owners of the machinery when it comes time to conduct repair and maintenance. Today’s tractors have more technology at play than the more mechanical machines of yore, which brings about a whole other separate set of issues when it’s time to turn a wrench.
So far, the so-called “right to repair” issue is being driven primarily by automobiles and consumer electronics, but agricultural interests are starting to take notice. It has been considered in a few state legislatures, but only one state (Massachusetts) has something on the books.
The crux of the issue is a concern that manufacturers (car, electronic, equipment, or otherwise) are making it next to impossible to do routine maintenance without running afoul of warranty language and even some copyright laws. That concern, Nick Tindall with the Association of Equipment Manufacturers tells Agri-Pulse, is unfounded.
“There’s been a lot of, frankly, what I would call fear-mongering where the proponents of these ‘right to repair’ pieces of legislation are giving farmers the impression that they’re not allowed to work on their equipment,” Tindall said. “We’ve had people even say that they don’t think they’re allowed to change their oil or change a tire, which is just utterly ridiculous.”
It’s important to consider two federal laws as they relate to the issue: the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998 and the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act, which was passed in 1975. The DMCA governs the software that might be included in farm equipment, and the MMWA deals with hardware protected by manufacturer warranties. The problem that the right-to-repair conversation demonstrates is confusion as to where the hardware stops and software begins.
“Where we get into trouble is when manufacturers start trying to combine the two things in one document, because they’re not the same thing,” Gay Gordon-Byrne, executive director of the Repair Association, told Agri-Pulse. “You own hardware, you license software, and there’s no way to make those two things the same, because they’re not.”
Gordon-Byrne says that the differentiation between software and hardware is “totally up to the manufacturer . . . It’s not defined in law, and it’s messy.”
Therein lies the concern that an equipment owner could void his or her warranty or get in trouble with the law simply by unknowingly making an unauthorized repair. In many cases, the fact that the machine is under warranty is a good thing; the owner can just take it in and have the problem remedied for essentially nothing. However, what happens when a certified technician can’t get to the repair in a satisfactory timeline in an industry where time is so crucial? Or what if the repair isn’t covered by a warranty and action taken by the owner to fix it violates the warranty that could cover other problems?
Aside from warranty issues, the mere knowledge of what’s wrong is also up in the air as diagnostic software can sometimes only be available through an authorized retailer. While a 2014 memorandum of understanding set in motion a pledge that automotive companies make available their diagnostic codes and repair data by 2018, there has been no similar MOU for agricultural equipment. Even if there were, MOUs are voluntary pledges, not enforceable by law.
While nothing on the books says equipment retailers have to provide the diagnostic technology, the aforementioned screens will often display error messages that can be, in many cases, cross referenced with an owner’s manual or repair technician by phone. Tindall said that withholding diagnostic information and forcing customers to use company repair shops rather than doing the work themselves or perhaps using an independent repair shop goes against the very principles of the free market.
“We definitely have a role, responsibility, and a market incentive to (make repair information available,)” he said. “If one manufacturer doesn’t do it, another one is going to do it.”
“The vast majority of information that a farmer needs to do that work is available,” Tindall added.
This is also where things can get a little sticky for farm organizations weighing where to stand on the issue: On one hand, their members could be frustrated with the hoops they have to jump through to get work done on their new equipment; on the other hand, if actions are taken that lead to less traffic to repair wings of rural machinery dealerships, that could lead some of those dealers to close, which would force equipment owners into longer drives to retrieve necessary parts and service.
While there’s not imminent federal legislation on right to repair, Gordon-Byrne said many states might take up the issue, based on conversations she’s had with local lawmakers. No matter if the solution becomes one national law or a series of state statutes, Gordon-Byrne said the train of thought around equipment repair needs to change.
“The more distributed repair is, the healthier it is for farmers in terms of their ability to operate,” she said. “I think we have to pull our heads out of that mentality that the dealership is the only place we can get support.”
Major farm organizations have not yet taken an official position on this issue, but both the American Farm Bureau Federation and National Farmers Union have issued discussion papers on this topic and the topic is likely to come up during their annual meetings in 2017.
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