The European Union recently adopted new rules to help consumers repair household appliances like refrigerators and televisions. The rules require manufacturers to provide spare parts for years after sale – the number of years depending on the device. The “Ecodesign Directive” is intended to help protect the environment by extending the life of consumer appliances. The regulation also applies to servers, requiring firmware updates for 7 years post-production. These regulations are part of a larger battle over consumers’ right to repair their belongings, including vehicles. Vehicles are already part of the right to repair discussion, and the deployment of technically complicated CAVs will ramp up that conversation, as some manufacturers seek to limit the ability of individuals to repair their vehicles.
One current battle over the right to repair is taking place in California. In September of last year, the California Farm Bureau, the agricultural lobbying group that represents farmers, gave up the right to purchase repair parts for farm equipment without going through a dealer. Rather than allowing farmers to buy parts from whomever they’d like, California farmers have to turn to equipment dealers, who previously were unwilling to even allow farmer’s access to repair manuals for vehicles they already owned. A big part of the dispute stems from companies like John Deere placing digital locks on their equipment that prevent “unauthorized” repairs – i.e. repairs done by anyone other than a John Deere employee. The company even made farmers sign license agreements forbidding nearly all repairs or modifications, and shielding John Deere from liability for any losses farmers may suffer from software failures. Some farmers resorted to using Ukrainian sourced firmware to update their vehicle’s software, rather than pay to hire a John Deere technician. The California case is especially ironic, as the state has solid right to repair laws for other consumer goods, requiring companies to offer repairs for electronics for 7 years after production (though companies like Apple have been fighting against the state passing even more open right to repair laws).
In 2018, supporters of the right to repair were boosted by a copyright decision from the Librarian of Congress, which granted an exception to existing copyright law to allow owners and repair professionals to hack into a device to repair it. The exception is limited, however, and doesn’t include things like video game consoles, though its’ language did include “motorized land vehicles.”
So how could battles over the right to repair influence the deployment of CAVs? First off, given the amount of complicated equipment and software that goes into CAVs, regulations like those recently adopted in the EU could help extend the lifespan of a vehicle. Cars last a long time, with the average American vehicle being 11.8 years old. Right to repair laws could require manufactures to supply the parts and software updates needed to keep CAVs on the road. New legislation could protect consumer access to the data within their vehicle, so they don’t have to rely on proprietary manufacturer systems to know what’s going on inside their vehicle. A 2011 study of auto repair shops showed a 24% savings for consumers who used a third-party repair shop over a dealership, so independent access to data and spare parts is vital to keeping consumer maintenance costs down. People are very used to taking their cars to independent repair shops or even fixing them at home, and many consumers are likely to want to keep their ability to do so as CAVs spread into service.
P.S. – Two updates to my drone post from last week:
Update 1 – University of Michigan (Go Blue!) researchers have demonstrated a drone that can be used to place shingles on a roof, using an interesting system of static cameras surrounding the work-site, rather than on-board cameras, though it remains to be seen how many people want a nail gun equipped drone flying over their head…
Update 2 – UPS has been granted approval to fly an unlimited number of delivery drones beyond line-of-sight, though they still can’t fly over urban areas. They have been testing the drones by delivery medical supplies on a North Carolina hospital campus.