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The right to repair: My car and I are totally there

As I type these words, I’m sitting in the local Volvo dealer’s lobby, awaiting the completion of service on my 2008 XC70. Those of you who’ve already read my previous snowblower tale of woe probably already have a good idea why I’m here. But before I dive into the details of this tale of woe, here’s some background.

Long-time readers are already aware of my longstanding coverage (both conceptually and as it’s affected me personally) of obsolescence by design, also sometimes referred to as planned obsolescence. Quoting from Wikipedia, it’s:

A policy of planning or designing a product with an artificially limited useful life or a purposely frail design, so that it becomes obsolete after a certain pre-determined period of time upon which it decrementally functions or suddenly ceases to function, or might be perceived as unfashionable. The rationale behind this strategy is to generate long-term sales volume by reducing the time between repeat purchases (referred to as “shortening the replacement cycle”). It is the deliberate shortening of a lifespan of a product to force people to purchase functional replacements.

To date, as far as I can recollect, I haven’t yet covered the related topic of the right to repair. Wikipedia again:

The right to repair refers to proposed government legislation that would allow consumers the ability to repair and modify their own consumer products (e.g., electronic or automotive devices), where otherwise the manufacturer of such products requires the consumer to use only their offered services by restricting access to tools and components, or software barriers put in place to hinder independent repair or modification. These obstacles often lead to higher consumer costs or drive consumers to replace devices instead of repairing them.

My buddies at iFixit have, I’m proud to say, been particularly vocal advocates of the concept. Arguably, their interest is at least somewhat self-serving, since they’re a supplier of toolsets, replacement parts and instruction sets for do-it-yourself repair afficionados, after all. But knowing company CEO Kyle Wiens as I do, I’m also aware of his higher motivations: to reduce the environmental and other impacts of both unnecessary waste generation and replacement-product creation, for example, as well as to empower product owners to actually own their products, versus (as with music and movies, for example) only have a strings-attached license to use those products. I’d even argue that Kyle’s longstanding passion for the right to repair drove his founding of iFixit, not the other way around.

One of the most egregious examples of “you don’t really own what you purchase” that I’ve come across involves farm equipment supplier John Deere. Quoting from Hackaday’s coverage:

John Deer tractors, a stalwart of North American agriculture, have become difficult to repair due to their parts using DRM restricting their use to authorized Deere agents. We’ve covered farmers using dubious software tools to do the job themselves, we’ve seen more than one legal challenge, and it’s reported that the price of a used Deere has suffered as farmers abandon their allegiance to newer green and yellow machines.

Citing these and other similar situations, U.S. President Joe Biden signed an executive order tackling the issue last summer, and the U.S. Legislative Branch (House of Representatives, specifically) has more recently also taken up the torch. There have been some recent success stories: Microsoft, for example, is partnering with iFixit to bolster independent repairers (including consumers’) access to parts, tools and tutorials:

Apple, too, has announced its conceptual (at least for now) intention to offer parts and tools for DIY repair, although I’m admittedly skeptical that the eventual breadth and depth of the program will meaningfully address consumers’ expectations. After all, this is the company that for years now has been using proprietary pentalobe head screws instead of standard flat, Philips and Torx equivalents. Apple also has a long history of scaring its customers with ominous warning messages on, disabling features for, or flat-out blocking the operation of hardware if those customers have the audacity to use unofficial (or even swapped from other systems’) batteries, displays, cameras, etc., and/or have someone other than Apple do the repair. Has Apple turned a new leaf, or is this just a PR move to pacify shareholders and lawmakers?

As the title of this post indicates, I’m specifically going to cover the right to repair for automobiles today. Recent coverage in Wired Magazine reminded me that about a decade ago, a U.S.-wide agreement driven by a year-earlier mandate from voters in Massachusetts:

…guaranteed that car owners and mechanics would have access to the same kinds of tools, software, and information that they give to their own franchised car dealers. As a result, today anyone can buy a tool that will plug into a car’s port, accessing diagnostic codes that clue them in to what’s wrong. Mechanics are able to purchase tools and subscriptions to manuals that guide them through repairs.

The aforementioned port, I believe is OBD, normally found underneath the dashboard:

As you’ll soon see, the agreement only covers diagnostics data, not anything else. And although not germane to this particular blog’s subject, it turns out that the agreement also doesn’t cover diagnostics and other data transmitted and received wirelessly via the increasingly common cellular and Wi-Fi connectivity built into vehicles. Check out the Wired write-up for the details, and the subsequent Slashdot pick-up for additional commentary.

Back to my story: As my previous post already mentioned, I inadvertently ran my Volvo remote key fob through my snowblower the other day. So far, all I’ve been able to find in the snow are two partial case pieces and the physical key (included as backup in case the fob’s batteries fail):

Here’s what it’s supposed to look like (with the physical key not yet cut):

I’d hoped that I might be able to dig out the case beat up but essentially intact, with the two-PCB sandwich (per the dealer) still protected from the elements, so I could just inexpensively replace the case and go on my happy way. Obviously, that’s not going to happen (by the way, if I ever find the PCBs and they’re not crushed to dust, I’ll do a teardown, among other reasons so you can see how miniscule the bill of materials cost is).

Speaking of cost…I called up two dealers in town, who quoted me identical replacement prices…nearly $600 inclusive of labor! The work needed to be done at the dealer; I couldn’t program the new key myself, nor un-program the old, mangled one, and none of the independent repair shops or locksmiths I spoke with were able to do this either. And as far as I can tell, the bulk of the “labor” involves cutting the new physical key; everything else, the service rep admitted to me when I went in for the “extortion,” happens through the OBD port.

I hit up eBay, but nobody selling key fobs online (the ones who bothered to reply to my messages, at least) could provide me with the all-important unique 16-digit code accompanying the fob, which Volvo told me was necessary for programming to succeed. So I bit the bullet, fuming the entire way (and still today)…hey, at least the dealer gave me a $25 coupon…

I’m not naïve. I get that you can’t make pairing a new wireless key fob too easy, otherwise a crook could just tow a locked car away and pair any old fob with it (perhaps in combo with a peek at the VIN visible through the front windshield). I also get that dealers need to turn a profit somehow, and they usually accomplish this not through the vehicle’s base price (for competition-with-other-dealer reasons) but via:

  • Accessory upgrades
  • Extended warranties, and
  • Post-sale service

And I get that hardware prices are inflated somewhat right now due to lingering IC shortages; the service rep also told me that they’d gone up 3% effective the beginning of this year. But $570 for a replacement key fob? To be clear, this isn’t a Volvo-specific issue, although other luxury brands and models likely also have inflated prices compared to mainstream variants. When I told a neighbor my sob story after the accident, she said that a replacement fob on her Ford was “only” $300. That’s still highway robbery (bad pun intended).

Agree or disagree? Let me know in the comments.

Brian Dipert is Editor-in-Chief of the Edge AI and Vision Alliance, and a Senior Analyst at BDTI and Editor-in-Chief of InsideDSP, the company’s online newsletter.

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