Thursday, April 25, 2024

Spotlight on right to repair

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Action by US President Joe Biden to free up farmers’ access to farm equipment technology and software has won some strong support among New Zealand operators. Biden recently signed an executive order that included the “right to repair” action aimed specifically at agricultural machinery. The order is intended to promote greater competition in the US economy.
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Action by US President Joe Biden to free up farmers’ access to farm equipment technology and software has won some strong support among New Zealand operators.

Biden recently signed an executive order that included the “right to repair” action aimed specifically at agricultural machinery.

The order is intended to promote greater competition in the US economy.

The right to repair action asks the Federal Trade Commission to curtail “unfair anti-competitive restrictions on third party repair or self-repair of items, including restrictions imposed to prevent farmers from repairing their own equipment”.

A large movement among US farmers, the right to repair stance has grown as farm equipment has become increasingly computerised and run by proprietary software, requiring specific dealer-only diagnostics and parts to be repaired.

Earlier this year, over half the US’ states introduced the right to repair legislation and the presidential executive order has been hailed for boosting its strength.

It aims to allow both farmers and independent farm machinery service staff to get under the hood of machines without risking voiding warranties or being unable to access the machine’s technology.

Canterbury contractor and farmer Jeremy Talbot says any pressure on machinery manufacturers to free up farmers’ ability to make repairs to equipment was not before time, and the same issues affecting US farmers applied here.

“New Zealand can be just as bad for getting information and repairs done. I can go back 10-15 years when you could access parts CDs, but now they often have a lot of parts information removed from them, if you can get hold of them,” Talbot said.

Mechanical issues he had with a tractor soon revealed the machine had not received 23 upgrades its equivalent in the United Kingdom would have received. Talbot says warranty conditions here were often on a “fix on failure” condition, rather than receiving new parts based on manufacturer recalls.

“You have no choice, you can’t go anywhere else and you can’t argue about a dealer’s charge out rate to diagnose a problem,” he said.

“The (executive) order is a good thing. At present everyone is held to ransom.”

He contrasted farm machinery diagnostics to the car industry where car owners were now able to plug in off the shelf diagnostic computers to assess their machine’s problems.

“It could be the same for tractors. But if I replace one part of the hydraulics you cannot recalibrate the computer, you have to get a guy in to do it. You are then limited by the dealership, when they are open and when staff are around to come and do it,” he said.

Whakatāne grain contractor Garry Bryson trained as a mechanic and says he found the modern limitations to farmer repair frustrating and expensive.

“We had trouble with our crawler tractor. But the issue was an auto electrician only has so much ability to get any diagnostics out of it,” Bryson said.

“So we were looking at $180 an hour just to plug a dealer’s diagnostics in and it turned out the problem was a tiny sensor they charged $2000 for. We ended up getting it on Ebay for $75 and it was here in three days.”

Both Talbot and Bryson noted the complexity of modern tractors was making them expensive to maintain. They said being beholden to proprietary diagnostics and parts did little to change that.

However, Talbot also appreciated some of the productivity gains the proprietary technology had delivered in recent years.

“There are some good toys in there. My John Deere combine can ‘talk’ to the tractor alongside it, steering it and, taking a step further, it can control the auger to fill the trailer evenly and shuts off when the trailer is full; it saves your neck over harvest time. JD claims a gain of 30% in productivity, and I could vouch for that,” Talbot said.

But pre-computerised tractors older than late-80s models are surging in values in the US at present, bid up by farmers accustomed to fixing the relatively simple, ‘bulletproof’ machines themselves.

One 1979 John Deere 4640 sold last year for US$61,000, double what such a model would normally fetch, but still half the price of its modern equivalent.

Tractor and Machinery Association (TAMA) president Kyle Baxter says the association was aware of the US issue, but maintained the issue was not major here in NZ yet.

“At the same time, it may come onto our radar in three to five years. In the meantime, we sell a significant amount of parts to farmers and contractors who perform their own repairs. It is, however, a different issue when people may want to modify machines,” Baxter said.

Andrew Cooke, head of Hamilton software company Rezare, says the issue was at a similar stage to where cars were 10-15 years ago.

“Then people reverse engineered it and published information, and now you can buy diagnostic equipment to do it yourself,” Cooke said.

“There are essentially three aspects to this issue: diagnostics, data and software access.”

He maintained farmers should have diagnostic access.

The huge amount of data machines like combines are capable of literally harvesting should also remain in their ownership, and if passed on to third parties, farmers should be informed of this.

“But software modification, that becomes a liability issue; companies work hard to ensure software is reliable and safe and naturally they will want to defend that,” he said.

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