The right to repair
This is a very complicated issue. With the advent of computers and software now controlling almost everything we use so many items that fail are tossed out because it costs more to repair. For larger and much mores expensive items, like an $800,000 tractor, the right to repair has its problems, far too many to detail here. However, this article touches on some of those issues. Australian farmers are fast learners and clever, they have to be.
It’s a modern dilemma — a customer wants to fix a broken smartphone, tablet or laptop, only to be told by the manufacturer they will have to pay top dollar at an “authorised repair centre” or fork out for a replacement. But for farmers like Paul Green, who grows grain in Western Australia’s Wheatbelt, the stakes are a lot higher than a broken iPhone.
“In my view if I’m paying $800,000 for a tractor then I own the tractor and I can do what I want with it,” he said.
Farmers driving ‘right to repair’ issue as legislative battle unfolds in US
Mr Green is one of many growers across Australia anxiously watching a legal battle unfold in the United States between the ‘Right to Repair’ movement and manufacturers, like Apple.
The ‘Fair Repair’ bill would give individuals the ability to purchase software diagnostic tools that would allow them to take their equipment to a dealer of their choice to fix the problem or try to repair the machine themselves.
And it’s not disgruntled city consumers, frustrated over the lack of options for fixing personal electronics, but farmers who are spearheading the movement.
Nebraskan Senator Lydia Brasch, a farmer with a background in computer science, is sponsoring the bill in her state, last Thursday California became the 18th US state to introduce a similar bill.
Monopoly on repair hurting farmers
Grain growing is big business in Australia, with about 22.3 million hectares planted by farmers annually.
Wheat is the dominant crop, with Western Australia accounting for around half of Australia’s total production, and it all needs to be harvested using built for purpose equipment.
After Australia’s local agricultural machinery industry fell by the wayside in the 1980s, grain and cotton farmers have become tied to overseas manufacturers such as John Deere and Class.
“We are such a small market for the machinery of the whole wide world so we are stuck with what happens in America and what happens in Europe,” said Mr Green.
The tractor of today is a complex computerised system that relies on embedded software to function, and as they’ve become more hi tech the ability to fix them has become increasingly complex.
The world’s biggest tractor manufacturer, John Deere, requires customers to sign a license agreement that forbids them from performing any software repairs, as non-profit digital civil liberties group the Electronic Frontier Foundation reported.
For independent agricultural mechanics like Brendon Kupsch, who runs a repair shop in Geraldton, there is little he can do.
A matter of free choice
“With most modern machinery you’re going to need some sort of software update, whether it’s autosteer or the tractor needs an update or the harvester needs an update, once, twice, three times a year at least so you’ll have a [authorised] technician on your farm,” he said.
“The machinery companies, they want their people to do that sort of work. They don’t want anyone touching their computer stuff.
For Mr Kupsch, the issue boils down to a matter of free choice.
“I think the farmer has the right or anybody has the right to choose who they have repair their tractor, their car their motorbike,” he said.
“If you want a dealership person out on your farm that’s great [but] if you don’t you should [be able to] choose who you want.”
Aside from having to adapt to machines built and tested in overseas conditions, Australian farmers are also faced with being among the most remote in the world.
When one of Mr Green’s machines has a technological fault the callout to the small WA farming town of Hyden could cost him $1,000.
“It’s not like in America where there’s a dealer around the corner who can get on with their computer and sort the issue out for you,” he said.
“What we’re left with is being 120kms away from the dealer, it’s an hour and a half trip for a dealer to come out with his mechanic, plug his computer in, do his little stuff [then] five minutes later turn around and drive for another hour and a half to go home.
While the callout fee may sound excessive, Eastern Wheatbelt farmer Colin Penny said it’s the loss of productivity where they really start to feel the financial pinch.
“If a mechanic is available they could be two [to] three hours away to get on your farm. During a seeding and harvest operation it’s all go and any downtime can cost you,” he said.
Although companies have developed technology that would allow remote software repair sessions, Mr Penny said that was simply not an option in rural Australia.
“I’ve no doubt that the machinery dealers will be saying the telematics [the] new information sharing between machine and factory will solve the problem but given our mobile network out here, it’s just not going to happen,” he said.
Manufacturers cite safety concerns
Manufacturers have cited safety and intellectual property concerns as the reason for the strict controls over software.
In a statement released to the ABC by John Deere, they stated that “unauthorised modification of the embedded software code” could lead to equipment that no longer meets “industry and safety standards, or environmental regulations”.
But for Mr Green, who is due to start seeding in the coming months, time is running out.
“If the tractor manufacturer says they own the software then that’s fine but if they own it they need to be able to fix it and service it and here in Western Australia in particular.
“No matter what they say there is a time lag in there and production is lost while we are waiting for those issues to be resolved,” he said.