There’s a lot of ways in which companies discourage your ability to fix things you buy, and at long last the Federal Trade Commission has pledged to push back against them.
A policy statement released Wednesday by the FTC announced that its members have “unanimously voted to ramp up law enforcement against repair restrictions that prevent small businesses, workers, consumers and even government entities from fixing their own products.”
This comes only a few days after President Joe Biden signed an executive order calling upon the commission to take the issue more seriously. And while most of the focus in the media appears to be centered on the company that makes your smartphone, this carries huge implications for the automotive industry as well — especially as software becomes increasingly unavoidable in all vehicles, and EVs become more accessible.
In the statement, the FTC shared the findings of a recent report, which found that manufacturers use a variety of tricks to frustrate consumers and small businesses who take matters into their own hands (duh), including but not limited to “adhesives that make parts difficult to replace, limiting the availability of parts and tools or making diagnostic software unavailable.”
That last roadblock — diagnostic software — is a biggie. Not just for cars, but construction and farming equipment, a fact that often surprises people. Today’s tractors are rigorously managed by software. If you want an idea of how rigorously, ask a farmer. If you can’t find one, skim through this eye-opening interview with John Deere CTO Jahmy Hindman from The Verge, in which Hindman says that today John Deere employs more software engineers than mechanical engineers.
Companies like John Deere often argue that the law forces them to keep certain aspects of their products — i.e., diesel emissions controls and steer-by-wire systems — effectively locked away from owners. But the fact of the matter is that sensors and code now inhibit making what used to be DIY repairs, and companies have no incentive to change that because they stand to make more money when something breaks and they’re the only ones capable of providing service.
For an industry founded upon resourceful, do-it-yourself spirit, being forced to haul your machinery to an authorized center for service you know you should be able to address on your own simply isn’t going to fly.
To that end, the FTC says it has within its disposal “a range of tools it can use to root out” these prohibitive practices, and that it expects to “move forward on this issue with new vigor.” The livelihood of independent repair shops, desire to mitigate electronic waste and the general resilience of families and businesses exposed by the pandemic were named as top concerns that have spurred the commission to take action. Additionally, the FTC is encouraging the public to reach out and alert it to any sketchy warranty terms:
The Commission also urged the public to submit complaints of violations of the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act, which prohibits, among other things, tying a consumer’s product warranty to the use of a specific service provider or product, unless the FTC has issued a waiver.
This all sounds great in theory, and it’s been a very long time coming. But the value of today’s statement of intent will ultimately be determined by how aggressively the FTC fights this issue going forward, and how easily it capitulates to lobbyists from sham consortiums like the “Alliance of Automotive Innovation.” For today, it’s a promising first step to return a little agency to consumers.