Farmers are hacking their tractors so they can actually fix them

Not only is proprietary software an issue with John Deere, it's a problem that could affect your car, as well.

Andrew Krok Reviews Editor / Cars
Cars are Andrew's jam, as is strawberry. After spending years as a regular ol' car fanatic, he started working his way through the echelons of the automotive industry, starting out as social-media director of a small European-focused garage outside of Chicago. From there, he moved to the editorial side, penning several written features in Total 911 Magazine before becoming a full-time auto writer, first for a local Chicago outlet and then for CNET Cars.
Andrew Krok
3 min read
John Deere

You wouldn't think that farm equipment would turn into a battlefield for right-to-repair laws, but in 2017, anything is possible.

American farmers are increasingly turning to hacked firmware in order to repair their John Deere tractors, Motherboard reports. The reason they're doing so is because John Deere has a license agreement wherein only Deere dealers and "authorized" shops can perform work on tractors.

That may seem fine at a glance -- John Deere built the tractor, so it knows the best way to fix it, right? That's just one part of it, though. According to the farmers Vice talked to, John Deere charges out the wazoo for its work, and technicians might not arrive to a broken tractor with sufficient haste, which can affect a farmer's bottom line in a big way.

John Deere Tractor 1
Enlarge Image
John Deere Tractor 1

Right to repair is an issue that extends far beyond farm equipment.

John Deere

In fact, Deere's license agreement specific forbids farmers from suing for "crop loss, lost profits, loss of goodwill, loss of use of equipment ... arising from the performance or non-performance of any aspect of the software."

Thus, farmers are turning to shady online forums where hackers are peddling cracked versions of John Deere software that bypasses required authorization, allowing farmers to once again work on their own tractors.

In order to combat this issue, farmers have been quick to endorse right-to-repair legislation, which would force manufacturers to make it so that independent repair shops and consumers have access to the tools required to work on a vehicle, whether it's a tractor or a phone or a car.

These issues aren't limited to farm equipment, either. Right to repair has been a hot topic in the automotive industry, especially as computers play an ever-increasing role. For the longest time, tinkering with a car's software was a violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

Late in 2016, an exemption took effect that allows "good faith security research" and "lawful modification" -- so, basically, as long as you're not skirting emissions regulations, you should be fine when adjusting parameters in a car's ECU.

John Deere's full statement is below:

Our number one priority is to design and manufacture safe equipment that provides value and performance for our customers, and software is a critical part of this. Software modifications increase the risk that equipment will not function as designed. As a result, allowing unqualified individuals to modify equipment software can endanger machine performance, in addition to Deere customers, dealers and others, resulting in equipment that no longer complies with industry and safety/environmental regulations.

This is why John Deere's relationship with the dealer channel is so important. Working with a John Deere dealer provides every customer access to trained technicians and expertise to assist with any service issues, whether in the shop or remotely in the field. Most of John Deere's late model equipment is equipped with technology that allows an operator to give a dealer remote access to help diagnose concerns real-time over a cellular connection (or satellite communications), which can alleviate the need for an on-site service call in the U.S.

When a customer buys John Deere equipment, he or she owns the equipment. As the owner, he or she has the ability to maintain and repair the equipment. The customer also has the ability through operator and service manuals and other resources to enable operational, maintenance, service and diagnostics activities to repair and maintain equipment. John Deere technical, diagnostic, parts, and operator manuals are available and easily accessible to the general public.

Update, March 23: Added manufacturer statement.