Deere & Co. says it will make expanded repair software available to customers, a win for farmers who have lobbied for years for the ability to do their own mechanical work.
The Moline, Illinois-based agricultural equipment maker announced Monday that starting in May, farmers and independent repair shops will be able to buy through its online store a version of its Customer Service ADVISOR diagnostic service tool. It said it will follow up in 2023 with “an enhanced customer solution” allowing owners and independent mechanics to download software updates to the machines from a Deere data network.
Farmers have complained that currently, they must call on Deere-certified technicians to do that work, effectively preventing them from making their own repairs.
“We recognize our customers’ desire for more autonomy in managing their equipment,” Deere Senior Vice President of Aftermarket & Customer Support Luke Gakstatter said in a statement. “Quality and uptime are essential to their operations.”
Deere spokesperson Jennifer Hartmann said the software will allow customers “to clear and refresh codes, take diagnostic readings, and perform limited calibrations specific to the customer needs.” She said the software starts at $1,200, though the product can be more expensive depending on the type of machine and the version that farmers and repair shops need.
The company’s new initiative comes after the so-called right-to-repair movement has gained high-powered allies. In a sweeping executive order in July aimed at promoting competition in the agricultural economy, President Joe Biden encouraged the Federal Trade Commission to “limit powerful equipment manufacturers from restricting people’s ability to use independent repair shops or do DIY repairs.”
The National Farmers Union filed an FTC complaint against Deere March 3, asking the agency to investigate “the company’s abusive restrictions on tractor and other farm equipment repair.” According to the complaint, which the Iowa Farmers Union joined, farmers sometimes wait in their fields for hours until Deere technicians arrive.
Why was Deere targeted in right-to-repair movement?
The right-to-repair movement rose as Deere’s machines have grown increasingly complex. With the goal of selling planters, tractors and combines that will increase farmers’ crop yields every year, Deere’s internet-connected machines now come with hundreds of sensors that track and report where crops are planted and how they grow.
The company designs the machines to automatically shut down when computer systems sense safety or environmental problems. A diagnostic code will appear on the machine’s screen.
According to the FTC complaint, farmers need software to figure out what the diagnostic codes mean and how to fix problems. In some cases, the machines go into “limp mode” and require separate software to authorize the repairs and return to normal operation.
Deere executives have said only about 2% of problems require this separate software, which only certified technicians have been able to use. But according to the FTC complaint, a review of diagnostic manuals for some machines shows that in connection with 90% of error messages, the company instructs farmers to “have your John Deere dealer repair as soon as possible.”
Why is Deere now putting out the software?
Deere executives have long held that giving farmers and independent repair shops the software may be dangerous. In a June interview with tech news website The Verge, Deere Chief Technology Officer Jahmy Hindman said he worried that users could accidentally lose control of their machines if they make certain changes to their software. He said tractors with internet connections, computers and sensors are more difficult to repair than older machines.
“These things are large,” Hindman told The Verge. “They cost a lot of money. It’s a 40,000-pound tractor going down the road at 20 miles an hour. Do you really want to expose untested, unplanned, unknown introductions of software into a product like that that’s out in the public landscape?”
Hartmann, the company spokesperson, said the new software offering will not be the same product that Deere certified technicians use. She said the software is an expansion of a product that the company has offered since 2018.
Hartmann said Monday’s announcement was not in response to Biden’s executive order or the complaint to the FTC.
“John Deere has a long history of innovation,” she said in an email, “and these expanded repair resources have been planned for some time.”
A Deere spokesperson did not immediately respond to an email Tuesday asking what the company is doing to avoid dangerous scenarios like the one Hindman spelled out.
Deere reports record profits, begins working on autonomous tractors
The profitability of Deere — one of the top employers in Iowa, with plants across the state, including in Ankeny — has surged under CEO John May. Since he took over in November 2019, the stock price has more than doubled to $425 a share.
Deere reported a record $5.96 billion profit in its most recent fiscal year, a 69% increase over its previous best year, in 2013. Executives project an even better 2022, with the company telling investors in February that it is targeting an annual profit of $6.7 billion to $7.1 billion.
Employees at one of the company’s Waterloo factories are now making Deere’s first autonomous tractors, a key step in the business’ precision agriculture transition.
This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: John Deere software to be made available for farmers, repair shops