By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.
Recent months have seen progress on the right to repair front, with new legislation introduced at both state and federal legislation, and litigation planned, pending, or ongoing
I previously posted on some of these developments in March, in Senators Introduce Right to Repair Legislation.
Last week, Motherboard (Vice) reported that smartphone manufacturers Google, Samsung, and even longstanding right to repair opponent, Apple, have made some concessions on the right to repair in Corporate Repair Initiatives Don’t Replace the Need for Right-to-Repair Laws.
Will these concessions suffice to accord consumers a meaningful right to repair, and therefore render further legislation (and litigation), unnecessary?
In a word, no.
The first problem with these corporate concessions is that they are incomplete. They concern smartphones only. To be sure, planned obsolescence for consumer electronics products generates enormous quantities of unnecessary e-waste. And any initiative that might reduce such waste should be welcomed. But these products comprise only one component of the right to repair problem. Concessions made by their makers don’t apply to other product categories. Autos. Tractors. Air conditioning systems. And other home appliances, including those touted as ‘smart’.
Another big problem with relying on corporate sweet nothings is that like all sweet nothings, they’re unenforceable. A company may promise to embrace the right to repair and then simply choose to ignore its promise. Last week, Kevin O’Reilly, right to repair campaign director for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (U.S PIRG) shared some details about farmer Ken Helt’s recent troubles with tractor maker John Deere’s record, Will corporate repair policies alone solve Right to Repair? I’m skeptical.
O’Reilly focused primarily on John Deere. But his account also mentioned in passing that Apple failed to follow through on a much ballyhooed right to repair program it promised to roll out early in 2022 (see this April reviewgeek discussion for further details, Apple Promised Us a Repair Program, Where the Hell Is It?)
Back to U.S. PIRG and John Deere:
… Farmers can’t make many repairs on their half-a-million-dollar tractors without intervention from a manufacturer-affiliated dealer. In addition to inflating costs, that can mean repair delays of up to a month. Such delays during planting season can have a huge impact on farmers’ bottom lines—each day farmers don’t get seed in the ground, their profits evaporate with the morning dew.
I’ve worked closely with farmers such as Ken Helt, who grows corn and soybeans in southeastern Iowa, to show lawmakers how we need Right to Repair reforms to address farmers’ problems in the same way we need them to address the problems with consumer electronics.
So, when John Deere announced last month that it would sell its Customer Service ADVISOR repair software directly to consumers, why didn’t Ken and I celebrate?
For one, the announcement is long overdue: Deere and other manufacturers promised in 2018 to make diagnostic tools available to farmers at the beginning of 2021. Deere failed to meet its own deadline.
But the problem goes beyond unmet commitments. Customer Service ADVISOR won’t free farmers such as Ken from being shackled to the dealer for many repairs.
In a nutshell, the Deere commitment is incomplete. Limited in scope. And ties farmers too closely to working with its dealerships only. Over to U.S. PIRG again:
Take the year-long repair saga that Ken finally solved last April. Ken says his John Deere 7280 tractor was rolling to a stop as often as once an hour. It disrupted his work and was a safety hazard—one night his tractor stopped in the middle of a four-lane highway, exposing him to oncoming traffic.
Ken told his dealer technician that he thought his transmission was faulty, but the tech insisted that wasn’t the case. Without access to the Dealer Technical Assistance Center (DTAC), a database of common failures, the Product Improvement Programs (PIPs) designed to address them, or the dealer-level Service ADVISOR, which provides additional diagnostic information and the ability to pair a serialized part to the machine at the end of the repair process, Helt had to take the tech’s word for it. Farmers and independent mechanics cannot buy these tools.
To make the problem worse, John Deere has pushed many of its dealerships to consolidate into chain networks. Our research found that there is one Deere chain for every 12,018 American farms and every 5.3 million acres of American farmland. Most of the dealerships in Ken’s area are owned by the same chain—the closest competitor is a 100-mile roundtrip away.
Helt finally got the full story when he stopped at a Nebraska dealership during a family road trip. The tech pulled up DTAC and found that there were 9 PIPs on his tractor’s transmission. A year and some $27,000 in repair fees later, Ken finally could use his tractor normally again.
“If you have a dealer who doesn’t give a hoot, they don’t bother to tell you,” Ken told me. “Farmers should be able to go in, get the software, and see what’s wrong with the thing so they can get it fixed.”
Even if Ken had access to Deere’s less-comprehensive Customer Service ADVISOR, it would have been of little help. He would need access to DTAC to find the problem and dealer-level Service ADVISOR to finalize the repair by pairing a part to the tractor, or the option to hire an independent mechanic who has access to those tools.
A further problem: Even if the corporate promises are sincere (and implemented in a timely fashion), they’re just promises. They’re reversible and by no means permanent. What’s to prevent corporate executives from in future reneging on a previous commitment made – perhaps in all sincerity -today?
Now, some may say that a similar objection also might apply to any right to repair statute or regulation that may be adopted. Laws can also be changed, regulations overturned, litigation results appealed and reversed. All true. But although by no means impossible, it’s more difficult to overturn a statute than reverse a corporate policy. Further, changing laws is usually a matter for public debate of which there’s a record. And therefore, the political process provides right to repair advocates a chance to save a statute – at least in theory.
So, I say, we should applaud the apparent conversion of corporations to the right to repair cause. But these corporate commitments should set a floor, not cap the ceiling, for what to expect.
Right to repair advocates have certainly made great strides. But the movement is still far from the finish line.
That means that either federal Fair Repair Act – as mentioned in the first paragraph above and discussed further in my March post – or something similar, along with parallel Federal Trade Commission (FTC) actions, and state initiatives, are all still necessary.