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Farmers Fight John Deere over Who Gets to Fix an $800k Tractor (bloomberg.com)
58 points by pseudolus 8 months ago | hide | past | favorite | 29 comments

A big part of this is the result of manufacturers trying to protect the profits of themselves and their dealer networks.

Dealer network profit is increasingly reliant and dependent on service income.

So attempts to lock in serviceability are to be expected.

I wonder if manufacturers will consider and experiment with a platform approach?

Perhaps along the lines of Salesforce, Xero, Apple App Store.

And take a cut of the ecosystem income.

Personal conspiracy theory:

If you're JD what you really want is to get a cut of revenue generated using the equipment. Like the copier market, all run on "clicks". Service is more or less free (and responsive), because if you're not harvesting they're not earning.

I'm inclined to believe that obsession with telemetry collected is partly for service, partly for sales, but also to support future "pay per unit processed" contracts and business models.

Hackable tractors undermine the nascent "farm equipment as a service" business model.

Might be what they are trying to do, but I feel like few industries have managed to make that happen.

With the exception of payment processing, I feel like most people avoid deals that try to take a cut of revenue like the plague. I know I do.

Think aircraft engine is closer to the farmer/JD relationship.

Airlines don't buy engines but rent thrust/hours. A little more explanation https://aviation.stackexchange.com/questions/8270/what-is-th...

Seems more like it should be more like the CNC machines at the shop I was at and the manufacturer. The price point is the same for the machines(around half a million), we were heavily encouraged to use their customer service and support, but we could work on, modify and repair our own machines as we saw fit, order parts from whoever we wanted and have any technicians we wanted work on the machines.

The machines were online and could be accessed by the manufacturer but were only accessed during customer support calls.

Very interesting, thanks for sharing.

I wonder how farm equipment manufacturers will manage the necessary transition in their dealer franchise model?

That makes sense.

But I wonder how the manufacturers will manage the transition of their large global franchise model to supporting “farm equipment as a service”?

It will be pretty disruptive to the franchise network.

maybe not a percentage cut of revenue but some kind of SAAS-like pricing model?

Lease model for farming equipment, I guess that's what you mean by platform approach?

I think subscription-like leasing is an option worth exploring.

But I’m thinking more along the lines of aftermarket hardware/software providers certified and brought onto a manufacturer’s platform marketplace.

> Dealer network profit is increasingly reliant and dependent on service income.

Why increasingly?

Profit margins on new durable goods are dropping, often approaching dealer cost.

So greater reliance on service profit is existential.

This has been an ongoing shift for about 20 years.

But why are profit margins on new durable goods dropping?

More competition amongst dealers?

Used cars lasting longer?

Manufacturers price-gauging the dealers?

A big part of this is the complexity of the project. There are a dozen sensitive control systems in a modern tractor, working in concert. An operating tractor is several tons of steel with dozens of large sharp blades whirling and cutting. Do something wrong and, unlike a Tesla which might crash and kill you, these things can take out an elementary school.

Sorry, but no. Farmers fix things that can kill them every day, and implying that modern tractors are too complicated to allow the owners to fix them is disingenuous and patently false.

The reason manufacturers are locking down access to fix equipment they sell is that it allows them to increase profits by controlling who can repair items and when, period.

Sorry, but no. Farmers weld chunks of iron; adjust carbuerators; replace pulleys. They don't normally tinker with 1,000,000-line programs requiring a degree in control systems to even understand.

Farmers have been operating, fixing, and repairing tractors for over a hundred years. Are out of control tractors such a problem that it's worth locking them down with software?

I suppose it depends on what you picture in your mind when you say the word "tractor".

If you picture a simple vehicle with teeny-tiny wheels on the front and big wheels on the back, and Old MacDonald in overalls and a straw hat on a bucket seat then no, out-of-control tractors aren't a huge problem.

Of course, none of the "tractors" like that are locked out.

If you picture a gargantuan technological wonder weighing tens of tons, guided by GPS, with robotic arms and machine-vision guided implements and and an enclosed, air conditioned cabin that is the size of Old MacDonald's "tractor" by itself, then yes it is.

The dirty little secret of the farm equipment "right to repair" movement is that "Old MacDonald" farmers don't want the right to modify their farm equipment so that they can fix things when they break-- large corporate farmers want access to software tools so they can strip out emissions equipment and safety features to more cheaply operate their machinery and they're funding a fake "grassroots" movement to try and get their wishes.

All of these locks started about 10 years ago, about 10 years into the fully-computerized phase of farm equipment. Farmers were chipping and otherwise modifying their vehicles to increase horsepower, lower fuel usage, enable "dirty fuel", and circumvent emissions warnings. Engines and turbos were blowing left and right and the dealers and manufacturers were left on the hook to pay for things because the farmers would pay for service contracts, chip their harvester to get 10-25 extra h.p., blow the engine, take off the chip, and then send it in for repair with a sheepish "oh geez I have no idea what happened LOL" look on their face.

So the manufacturers starting locking everything up.

Who is operating a tractor near a elementary school?


Every elementary school in the Midwest is adjacent a corn field. You need to get out more.

Are they driverless?

Like Tesla, supposed to have an operator monitoring at all times. Who easily gets bored and watches movies on their phone.

Might as well be. Most of my family are farmers and most of them have downloaded movies to watch on a tablet, one of them proudly talks about how he naps in his.

possibly a market for replacing this software with open source versions?

Pretty unlikely. Even replacing car ECUs is not something popularly done with open source at this point, despite them being much, much more prevalent than farm equipment.

I'm sure many farmers would love it if there was an open source firmware alternative, but that's about as likely as an open source firmware being developed for home microwaves. There's interest, but it's not widespread enough that someone is going to do it well enough to make it worthwhile.

I could see it happening but you would have to convince someone to let you hack their half a million dollar machine

The primary drivers of the locking down of software capabilities of tractors came down to emissions, if I recall correctly. Manufacturers are told their Ag equipment must reach certain goals in terms of output of waste gases which requires rather tight control of the combustion process. The issue I see though, is that upon being given that inch of latitude, Deere took a mile by using that as a likely excuse to enforce things in software like DRM that gimps the power output of the engine without paying a premium fee. Figure out a way to get the same results with Free, open source software, and generally speaking most problems will go away as long as you're willing to actually operate the thing and not relying on their drive-by-GPS software to do the work for you.

While tractors are undeniably complex mechanical devices, and always have been, it's only with the addition of proprietary software in the current rent-seeking happy buisness environment that these anti-user practices have become possible. Break the dependence on the software, and you should be good to go.

Though that "break the dependence" is doing a lot of heavy lifting there. Control software is no joke; but if anywhere would be the place to start hacking an open-replacement together, at equipment would be the place to start. Low speed, the operator is safely ensconced away from the whirly bits, and most importantly, low machine density.

If I had a tractor no one else was using; heck, I might just have basically tried to create the statechart and kludge together something that'd end up working.

Off the top of my head the project would require

A)breakdown of the PCB's of the ECU/BCU/ACU(Engine/Body/Accessory Control Units). These are assumed parts, I haven't seen a block diagram; but the gist is, if there is a PCB, a schematic will need to be inferred from it. You don't need to downright copy it, but you do need to make sure you account for every sensor. Emissions controls are no joke.

B) Experimentally, or through consultation of regulations, figure out the targets Deere has to hit to meet with regulations. You already know the engine and emission system itself is capable of hitting it, you just need to derive the parameters. A dyno and somebody experienced in the art of ECU tuning and some experimentation with different mappings should eventually find you converging on Deere's settings.

C)Analyze all signalling between components. This is where things get tricky. If it's just in the clear CAN bus style, you can tap the lines to build up your statecharts. If they've gone and thrown a bunch of encryption/obfuscation into the mix, and there's no way to trivially extract the keys from the hardware, you at least get an idea of what patterning is present, which can be enough to at least give you a sense of direction to follow.

One'd best set their goals on replacing the ECU firmware first and foremost, but I'm guessing there's probably some dependence of the control unit for the accessories on seeing a John Deere(TM) ECU that'll quickly cascade the scope. I couldn't imagine so many getting irritated by this otherwise.

I wouldn't be out or willing to replicate their auto-GPS drive features. Those are innovative enough I'm willing to leave them with a pass on it. The fundamental operation/repair of the tractor being locked out though is beyond justifiable. It'd be a multi-year endeavor for someone alone assuming enough funding to keep them chugging along with working on the project as a day job as a computer scientist with a rather Jack-of-all-Trades approach; throw in a competent EE and ME, and you might get something sooner. The scope would initially only cover a single tractor type, but once the process has been refined, it could be expanded to other models given that once you find something that works, you tend to stick with it.

All of this would of course carry an absurdly high risk of being sued most likely. They'd make the argument we're trying to copy their design. One'd have to know a skilled enough lawyer to be able to navigate the morass to ensure it was clear in court that all that was going on would be an independent reformulation of software that meets the same physical output parameters that just happens to line up with John Deere's tractors. Similar to how GNU Octave is a functional clone of MATLAB.

>The primary drivers of the locking down of software capabilities of tractors came down to emissions, if I recall correctly.

No, the primary driver of locking down who can repair the entire piece of equipment is protection of profits by the manufacturer and dealer.

Emissions are controlled by only a small part of the system and do not justify a total lock down, nor refusal to give information to the equipment owners, because once the equipment is sold, responsibility for emissions no longer rests with the manufacturer, it rests with the owner, at least in the US.

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