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'Right-to-repair' fight extends from iPhones to tractors

Adam Belz, Star Tribune (Minneapolis) on

Published in Science & Technology News

The software in Peter Ripka's $120,000 tractor gave him an error code and cut the engine to 50% capacity, and Ripka couldn't figure out why. He was locked out.

The farmer near Ogilvie called the dealership to send someone with a computer to identify the problem. Three days and two service calls later, a simple matter of water in the diesel exhaust fluid tank was solved. None of the delay would have been necessary if Ripka had access to the diagnostic software.

"You should be able to bring your own computer out there with a cable and plug it in just like they do, and pull it up," Ripka said. "But you can't."

Farmers' simmering frustration over their inability to repair their own equipment is now front and center in a contentious debate that spreads well beyond the farm. The battle is over who really controls a tractor, car, phone, refrigerator or camera, and whether customers have the freedom to repair the machines they own when they break, as they see fit.

New cars send owners to the dealership with a cryptic message when all they need is an oil change. An owner of an iPhone who tries to change the battery without Apple software gets a warning that sends them to the Apple Store. Nikon, starting in April, will only allow its cameras to be fixed at two specific locations in the U.S. Even Hasbro, the toymaker, has designed a Nerf dart blaster with sensors that prevent it from shooting cheaper aftermarket darts.

On one side of the debate is the "right-to-repair" movement. On the other side are manufacturers such as John Deere and Apple. Democratic presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have weighed in, calling for federal "right-to-repair" legislation, with Warren's pitch specifically aimed at farmers.

 

But so far the manufacturers are winning. Twenty-three states, including Minnesota, considered so-called "right-to-repair" legislation in 2019. None of those states passed such a law.

New dynamic

Tightly controlled integrated technology is everywhere in modern life, and a prominent example is Apple products.

Steve Jobs unveiled a Macintosh personal computer in the early 1980s that required special tools to open, and included no external ports for programmers. The iPod, introduced in 2001, only played music purchased through Apple iTunes. Today, Apple meticulously regulates who can repair an iPhone, though it has started to certify more independent repair shops in the past 12 months.

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