Deere promised better access to repair tools. Months later, not much has changed.
Deere made headlines for promising to make its Service Advisor software more available to customers. When it comes to repairing Deere equipment, however, farmers say nothing has changed.
Agricultural equipment maker John Deere said in March that it would be expanding access to self-repair resources including its Service Advisor diagnostic software. Nearly four months later, however, customers and independent repair professionals say little has changed, with all but the most common fixes still contingent on the cooperation of a John Deere authorized repair provider.
Deere announced in March that it was making the customer version of its Service ADVISOR software available directly from its online marketplace, Deerestore.com. Previously, the feature-reduced customer version of Service ADVISOR was only available from John Deere dealerships.
“Today, due to a variety of reasons, more customers are using available tools, resources, and replacement parts John Deere offers to maintain their equipment themselves,” said Denver Caldwell, Director Aftermarket & Customer Support at the time. “Customer Service ADVISOR unlocks deeper system levels insights to allow users with the expertise and desire to tackle more advanced repairs themselves.”
The move was widely seen as a concession to right to repair advocates and lawmakers, for whom Deere’s well documented, software-enforced restrictions on owner and independent repair and maintenance are a point of contention. Right to repair laws targeting agricultural equipment were proposed in a number of states in recent years, including Vermont, Nebraska, Montana, Louisiana and Florida. In addition, a Federal right to repair agricultural equipment bill (S.3549) is pending in the U.S. Senate, sponsored by Senator John Tester. Deere has been a vocal opponent of such laws.
Business as usual in Deere country
On the ground in farm country, Deere made good on its promise to sell Customer Service ADVISOR (CSA) from its website. However, there is scant evidence of changes in the months since Deere’s announcement, according to interviews with farmers and right to repair advocates.
The high cost of an annual subscription (more than $3,000 a year for access to service information on Deere’s Agriculture & Turf Equipment) and the limited capabilities of the software make it an unattractive offer for farmers and independent repair shops, which still find themselves blocked from many common repairs.
Meanwhile, the response to Deere expanding access to Customer Service ADVISOR from its website is unknown. The company has not released data on adoption of CSA since making it available from its online store in May. Deere did not respond to multiple e-mailed requests for information on the program.
Simple repairs locked away
Farmers we asked said they doubt that much has changed simply because the CSA software is more readily available.
Ben Evers, a Nebraska farmer and owner of FarmFocused.com, said he has used Customer Service ADVISOR in the past to extract realtime performance data from Deere equipment. But Evers said that even with the software, many repairs still require “some kind of direct authorization from Deere” to complete. That often comes in the form of cryptographically signed “payload files” that transmit the changes to Deere equipment. Those payload files must be sent from the dealership, or transferred directly from a Deere authorized repair professional at the farm.
That goes for even common repairs like changing fuel injectors on a piece of equipment, said Evers. “I was talking to the owner of a small repair shop who thought Customer Service ADVISOR would give him the ability to reprogram injectors himself, but he still needed a payload file. “So that limited the amount of work he could do.”
Many pointed out that not much really changed in March, despite the hoopla that surrounded Deere’s Customer Service ADVISOR announcement.
The CSA software has been available to customers since 2011, when Deere made it available through select dealerships selling forestry and agricultural equipment. The company expanded availability to a wider variety of dealerships in 2017.
“My understanding is that it’s the same thing, they just made the announcement more public and easier to get to try and confront the right to repair claims against them from news outlets,” commented a Reddit user with the handle “Better-Preparation73” who identified themselves as a Deere repair technician who works out of a dealership, in a discussion thread about the CSA program.
“You still won’t be able to program controllers or calibrate everything and I’m not sure about offline use but other than that it sounds like the dealership (Service ADVISOR),” Better-Preparation73 wrote.
Cars v. tractors: big differences in repair
But that’s a big lapse. Evers of FarmFocused.com equated Customer Service ADVISOR to the low end scanners car owners can buy at auto supply stores and that plug into the under-the dashboard port that are standard on all (non-electric) vehicles. Those allow car owners to monitor internal error and performance codes for their vehicle. “But if you want to do real technician work, there’s nothing you can do with that data. You’re just taking shots in the dark as to what’s going on.”
But there’s a big difference between cars and tractors. In the automotive sector, Massachusetts’ automobile right to repair law means that home mechanics or independent repair shops can get their hands on the more powerful diagnostic tools used by authorized auto repair providers and dealerships. Those tools give them the information needed to complete complex repairs and compete on an even playing field with authorized repair providers.
For agricultural equipment, where Deere is estimated to control 53 percent of the U.S. market for large tractors and 60 percent of the U.S. market for farm combines, no such right to repair exists. Practically, that means even common repairs requires the cooperation of a Deere dealership or authorized repair professional.
“You have to program in an ID for the ECU (Engine Controller Unit) to recognize (the part) and for the engine to run,” Evers notes. But doing so requires the Dealer version of Service ADVISOR, which customers and independent shops cannot access.
Long waits, little value
That may explain the low customer demand for the software. Jared Wilson, a farmer based in Butler, Missouri, said he was only the second person in his home state to request a license for the Customer Service ADVISOR when he reached out to his local Deere dealership in 2019. (The first was the state’s Department of Transportation.) Even then, it took him 90 days of hectoring his local Deere dealer to get his CSA license.
“Their whole business model is about denying independent mechanics just enough of the information to make it impossible to provide repair services.” - Jared Wilson
However, once he had the CSA software installed, Wilson saw the limitations of the offering first hand. Notably: Customer Service ADVISOR didn’t include an emissions module - a critical feature for diagnosing problems with engine performance - and was not connected to Deere’s Dealer Technical Assistance Center (DTAC), a cloud-based resource for up to date information and software updates for Deere equipment.
Other feature limitations stand in the way of a wide range of repairs, he said.
“Customer Service ADVISOR doesn’t allow you to reprogram controllers. So if put in a new controller, you have to request a payload through DTAC,” Wilson said. “Especially on newer (Deere) equipment, you need DTAC just to get the diagnostic processes to figure out what problem you’re having,” Wilson said.
Practically, that means independent repair shops or customers trying to carry out repairs with just the Customer version of Service ADVISOR will need to contact a John Deere dealership or authorized repair provider to get that access - adding time and expense to repairs that hobble the ability of independent providers to compete with Deere dealerships.
Frustrating repair at every turn
The net effect of the limitations Deere puts on access to its Service ADVISOR software and DTAC is to frustrate customer and independent repair, Wilson argues. While Customer Service ADVISOR may provide a small subset of features needed to do some aspects of some repairs, it doesn’t provide the full set of capabilities that are needed to successfully complete repairs without the cooperation of an authorized repair professional, he said.
And, so long as dealerships must be called on to complete repairs, independent repair shops will be unable to compete with them, while customers will find they cannot complete repairs themselves. “If you have to have a dealership come out to work on the software portion of machines, it incredibly expensive,” Wilson said. “You might pay $500 to $700 just for the to upload the software.”
“Their whole business model is about denying independent mechanics just enough of the information to make it impossible to provide repair services,” he said. “If for every fifth repair you have to call in the (Deere) dealership to do thousands of dollars in work that you would have done yourself, it makes it hard to compete,” he said.
The response, in farm country, has been for farmers and independent repair shops to turn to “cracked” versions of the Dealer level Service ADVISOR obtained online from China and other countries. Those provide full access to the dealer-level Service ADVISOR, but at a much reduced price.
Still, Deere’s increasing reliance on cloud based resources like DTAC is reducing the effectiveness of such software, Wilson said.
Class Action Suits take aim at restrictions
After years of silence in the face of Deere’s restrictive practices, farmers have apparently had enough. Restrictions on owner and independent repair are the subject of seventeen class action lawsuits filed by farmers against Deere in the last year. Almost all cite the company’s use of hardware and software locks to limit access to information needed to conduct service and maintenance on Deere equipment.
“Deere’s monopolization of the Deere Repair Services Market allows Deere and the Dealerships to charge and collect supracompetitive prices for its services every time a piece of equipment requires the Software to diagnose or complete a repair,” reads the case of Blake Johnson vs. Deere & Co. (PDF), which was filed in March in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Mississippi. “Consequently, Plaintiff and Class members have paid millions of dollars more for the repair services than they would have paid in a competitive market.”
Those cases were recently consolidated and will be heard by U.S. District Judge Iain D. Johnston in the Northern District of Illinois.
John Deere did not respond to multiple, email requests for comment on this story.
Deere in the crosshairs
Improper restrictions on repair are also in the crosshairs of federal regulators. The FTC in recent weeks has taken action against motorcycle maker Harley Davidson, portable generator manufacturer Westinghouse and backyard grill maker Weber for imposing illegal warranty restrictions on the use of independent service and non-OEM parts. Both votes were 5-0 by the politically divided Commission in favor of imposing penalties on the companies for violations of the Federal Magnuson Moss Warranty Act.
The Commission is also looking into practices at Deere - the U.S.’s most prominent maker of agricultural equipment. In September, 2021, for example, an FTC investigator met with a group of Nebraska farmers to hear complaints that Deere is abusing data privacy and that the company’s“monopolistic” data practices are preventing farmers’ right to repair.
That same month, Green Century Capital Management°, a socially responsible mutual fund company, announced it had filed a shareholder resolution with Deere, calling for an account of the company’s “anti-competitive repair policies.”
Right to repair advocates say the company’s small steps in the direction of supporting customer and independent repair are too little and too late and only highlight the need for a full fledged, legal right to repair.
"We aren’t campaigning for a kinder, gentler monopoly on repair,” wrote Kevin O’Reilly the director of the Right to Repair Campaign at the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (US PIRG). “All of us, especially our critical agricultural producers, deserve the freedom to fix our stuff in an open market. This announcement fell short of the mark—we need to make Right to Repair the law of the land."