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Are You Hacking Your Tractor?

As tractors, like everything else, become more technologically advanced, the licensing agreements that accompany these increasingly software-centric machines are taking some heat from critics.

“John Deere’s license agreement prohibits new tractor owners from tampering with the ‘Security Measures’ on embedded software,” says Todd Janzen, Janzen Ag Law. “Right to Repair advocates want the ability to modify this software to perform repairs and modify their machines. After all, farmers own their tractors, shouldn’t they be allowed to edit or replace their software?”

While some interpretations of Deere’s embedded software agreement, which was updated in October 2016, would have you believe tractor owners who purchase a machine after this date must turn to a technician for all repairs, Chuck Studer says that is not the case.

“Our licensing agreement is there to really support, in many ways, the customer’s right to repair,” says Studer, who is the director of industry relations for John Deere. “Yet, it provides protection on the intellectual property related to the embedded code itself.”

At the heart of the issue, he adds, is the perception that access to the software is required to make any type of repair on a tractor.

“The products we make are extremely sophisticated. In many cases, the software is an integral part of the operation of that vehicle, and it is there to ensure the right customer experience,” explains Studer. “In reality, 95% to 98% of all repairs that could potentially be done on John Deere equipment do not require access to the software at all. To do so implies that you are trying to have that machine do something it wasn’t originally intended to do.”

If there is an issue with the software, a farmer can receive a new version for his specific make and model of tractor at little to no cost from a dealer. 

“Our dealers understand the importance of downtime and work hard to minimize it,” he says. “We are working with more and more customers to establish a cellular or satellite connection with their dealers so that in the rare instance a software payload or new version is needed, we are able to fix the problem wirelessly, which minimizes downtime.”

In addition, the company is investing in other built-in diagnostics that can be accessed through a customer’s display instead of needing a special reader.

“If we didn’t believe in a customer’s right to repair, we wouldn’t also be investing in technology like remote display access to ensure equipment is operating correctly,” Studer says.

Price gouging

In situations like this, there is also the perception that price gouging is at play.

“It can be popular to think that companies like John Deere are out to gouge customers by forcing them to have to turn to a dealer for repairs,” says Studer. “The reality is that John Deere has worked for 180 years to build a close relationship with our customers. Our legacy and reputation is driven by our commitment to deliver a positive customer experience.”

Legalizing the right to repair

With all of these assurances from John Deere, some still aren’t convinced. At least five states are considering bills to legalize the right to repair electronics.

“Oftentimes, I get asked why John Deere is fighting legislation that might be introduced. We are not necessarily fighting it,” he says. “We are trying to educate not only our customers but also state legislatures and other influencers on John Deere’s position. We believe the proper response to a concern like this is to address it in the marketplace rather than through legislation, because oftentimes legislation has unintended consequences.”

There are also rumors that some farmers are turning to bootlegged firmware to keep their machines running.

“We are aware that there is a hacked version of software available through an indirect manner,” says Studer. “We believe there is a significant risk associated with that.”

By working through your John Deere dealer, you are ensuring that you receive the correct software for your tractor’s model and serial number.

“A farmer can be assured the software has been tested and verified to perform the way it was intended, and that there are no safety, liability, or emission implications,” he says.

The bottom line, Studer emphasizes, is that John Deere supports an owner’s right to repair their equipment. “The vast majority of our customers understand that and would rather focus on the value that software brings rather than any potential negative consequences,” he says.

The Right to Repair argument, Janzen adds, misses one key fact. “A John Deere tractor is slowly becoming more of a software device than a hardware device,” he says. “As the software component of a new tractor becomes more important than the hardware, the desire to repair will decrease to the point that very few people will care.”

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