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John Deere 9R 490 tractor. Credit: John Deere Company

Policy & Politics

It’s Complicated: Biden, Right To Repair, Deere, Tesla, Apple, & You

President Biden’s latest executive order seeks to level the playing field between tech companies, manufacturers, and consumers. Will it play in Peoria?

In 2016, John Deere modified its end user license by adding a clause stating that only Deere-authorized technicians could make repairs that involved the software embedded in the tractors. The reason, according to Deere, is that anything that effects its software could cause a safety issue or have a negative impact on the exhaust emissions of its vehicles.

Tesla pretty much started the whole “car as rolling computer” idea when it introduced the Model S, but in truth, almost everything manufactured today — except hammers and flower pots — depends on computer software to operate properly. Cars have dozens or even hundreds of microprocessors all controlled by software. They run our fuel injection systems, modulate our brakes, shift our transmissions, detect vehicles in our blind spots, control our power steering systems, and manage the interior temperature for us. All those microprocessors have to talk to each other or the car won’t function properly.

Repair parts that rely on microprocessors to work must authenticate themselves before the central computers allow them to access a vehicle’s operating system. Certainly manufacturers have a right to protect themselves from unauthorized repairs that could destabilize those carefully created operating systems, don’t they?

Maybe. But do they also have the right to restrict access to repair parts so that repairs can only be made by factory authorized technicians and refuse to provide repair manuals for their products? One person commenting on a recent ArsTechnica story said, “My father had a JD tractor die in the middle of harvest once. It was two days before the tech could get out there, at which point the field was too muddy for the guy to reach the tractor due to rain. The net result was three days of lost production plus a bill for someone telling a farmer the ground was wet.” We are talking about a machine that can cost as much as $800,000, one that can be the difference between a profitable growing season and financial disaster.

The $16,000 Tesla Repair Saga

Here’s a recent example that will be near and dear to the hearts of CleanTechnica readers because it involves Tesla. According to The Drive, a Model 3 owner ran over some debris in the road which cracked a fitting on the car’s cooling system. His local Tesla repair facility said it would need to swap the entire battery pack at a cost of more than $16,000. Tesla, it seems, doesn’t do repairs, as such. It simply swaps components. It also wanted to keep the old battery pack until the owner pointed out that his home state has a “right to repair” law that requires all parts replaced be turned over to the customer.

The car was towed from New Jersey to Electrified Garage in Seabrook, NH. The people there diagnosed the problem as a cracked fitting, which was removed and replaced with a standard brass plumbing part. The repair was not particularly high tech, but the cooling system operates at about 2 psi of pressure and never gets hotter than 60º C — well below the temperature of the cooling system in a conventional car with an infernal combustion engine. The repair cost $700.

But there’s more to the story. Despite saving $15,300, the owner now has to worry that Tesla could lock him out of access to its Supercharger network because he had an unauthorized repair done to his car. It could also decline to fix any problems that occur down the road under warranty for the same reason. As The Drive points out, Tesla now refuses to have any contact with the press for any reason at any time and so there is no feedback on this issue from the company on this story.

iFixit.com & Repair Manuals

Once upon a time, shade tree mechanics were passionate about changing their own oil and maintaining their own vehicles. They learned from experience to replace the throwout bearing whenever they installed a new clutch disc. MG aficionados (like me) knew to carry a 1″ box end wrench at all times. When the crappy SU fuel pump stopped working, you could tap it with the wrench a few times to bring it back to life long enough to get home.

They had a collection of repair manuals from Chilton or Haynes with lots of diagrams showing how to fix stuff the right way. They didn’t need Consumer Report to tell them how reliable their cars where. The pages in the manuals with the most grease stains quickly identified the troublesome areas. (My MG repair manual had grease stains on every page between the table of contents in front and the index in the back.)

There are still those who pride themselves on fixing stuff, and for them there is iFixit.com, an online service that takes today’s complex digital devices apart and tells people how to repair them. iFixit.com has over 100 million downloads and is one of the leading advocates for “right to repair” laws. ArsTechnica says iFixit.com is “essentially a clearinghouse for information that some of the big names in consumer electronics would just as soon keep to themselves.” High on the list of companies is Apple, which until recently had steadfastly refused to make repair parts or manuals available to its customers.

Competition Not Monopolies

President Biden issued a sweeping new executive order this week. Its 72 provisions are intended to alter the balance of power between consumers and tech companies. It aims to foster competition — something reactionaries say they love. For instance, the order will have an impact on whether Facebook can simply buy up competitors like Instagram or whether Amazon can require suppliers to sell their products only on its platform.

There are implications for telecommunications as well. The administration seeks to reinstate net neutrality rules that require ISPs to treat all digital traffic equally instead of throttling download speeds for some content to permit higher speeds for others.

The FTC is an independent agency like the US Postal Service, so the president can’t demand changes, but he can fill the existing vacancy. At present, the FTC board is deadlocked with two Democrats and two Republicans. Nevertheless, in 2018 it sent warning letters to six companies, including Nintendo, Sony, and Hyundai, saying that “warranty void” stickers and “genuine parts” clauses would no longer be allowed in warranties.

In a recent report to Congress about the impacts of repair restrictions on consumers, businesses, and independent repair shops, the FTC said bluntly, “There is scant evidence to support manufacturers’ justifications for repair restrictions.” Biden does have direct control over the USDA, which in turn can bring pressure to bear on the manufacturers of farm equipment like John Deere.

The ArsTechnica article concludes, “Biden’s executive order could usher in sweeping changes or just nibble around the margins — we’ll have to wait for the full text to know more. Regardless, with the FTC pursuing the matter along with legislation popping up both in states and in Congress, it seems likely that consumers will have more repair options in the near future.”

Maybe, just maybe, Tesla will have to learn to fix a few things rather than simply swapping out entire components at great cost to its customers as happened to CleanTechnica contributor Jennifer Sensiba recently.

The Perennial Power Struggle

Life often involves the ebb and flow of power from one interest group to another. Not so long ago, unions were all powerful. Today, they are in decline and almost irrelevant. The early days of Napster gave power to individuals before it and other file sharing services were eviscerated by DMCA.

The internet created entirely new power centers for Google, Facebook, and Amazon. Government policies strongly favored the internet pioneers, who took full advantage of their special place in cyberspace to gobble up competitors. Today, if you buy something on Amazon and have it shipped to Connecticut, you pay state sales tax. If you have the same item delivered to Florida, you pay no sales tax. Florida still cossets online commerce; Connecticut does not.

When Jeff Bezos first started Amazon, he deliberately incorporated the business in the state of Washington because it did not charge sales tax to his customers. Bezos took advantage of that policy decision to become the world’s wealthiest individual.

Once upon a time in America, new technologies — oil, railroads, and telephones — allowed certain individuals to become fabulously wealthy and certain companies to wield enormous power. The government fostered those nascent industries. Then Teddy Roosevelt and his trust busters came along and forced changes in the marketplace that toppled those monopolies and promoted greater competition.

Oddly enough, just as the federal government was succeeding at breaking up Ma Bell, the internet was born, leading to new monopolies. Just as the government once gave away huge tracts of free land to the railroads, it now bent over backwards to help new digital technology companies succeed. President Biden stressed that his executive order is designed to foster competition — the same idea that powered the antitrust movement more than a century ago.

It will alter the balance of power between business and consumers. Whether that’s a good thing or not depends on whether you stand to gain or lose power as a result. Logically, one would expect conservatives to applaud Biden’s move, since they are such fierce advocates for competition and the glories of the free market. We shall see.

For the moment, the people have won a round in the neverending struggle for power. The pushback from those who lost a little bit of power has already begun in the halls of Congress. Those who suffer a loss of power seldom do so gracefully. Once, the American public firmly supported the antitrust movement. It will be interesting to see if it does so again.

 
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Written By

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his homes in Florida and Connecticut or anywhere else the Singularity may lead him. You can follow him on Twitter but not on any social media platforms run by evil overlords like Facebook.

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