For many, the phrase “automobile hacking” will conjure visions of jeeps and sleek German automobiles careening out of control to their explosive demise. Even if one’s not so prone to spectacle, tractors might not be the first things that come to mind. And yet, among a vast array of hackable vehicles, the motivations of tractor hackers are among the most fascinating and politically relevant.
We often think of automobiles as mostly mechanical marvels, but in reality most of our modern vehicles are programming marvels, too. For the last couple decades, software has been integrated into our cars and farming equipment, running such critical processes as fuel injection, power steering, and anti-lock braking, among other things. These programs have allowed for important advancements in clean emissions, safety, and farming efficiency. At the same time, software has also been used by vehicle manufacturers as a lever for exerting more control over these vehicles—and, by extension, their owners—at the cost of consumer freedom.
Software is a copyrightable product, and thus protected by the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). The DMCA includes a provision, known as Section 1201, which prohibits the circumvention of any technological measures used to protect access to copyrighted material. Since much vehicle software is protected by firewalls, passkeys, or other safeguards, this means that car owners are prohibited from accessing the programs on their car, which is often necessary if they want to do any repairs or modifications. For farmers, this means that any time a farming vehicle breaks down, they either have to use the manufacturers’ repair services (which can cost thousands of dollars in transportation or waiting time), or find ways to hack into their own machines, inevitably breaking the law in so doing.
In 2015, a coalition of farmers, car hobbyists, and digital rights activists rallied for vehicle software to be exempted from Section 1201. Working together, they applied to the DMCA’s triennial exemption process and won: vehicle owners were now allowed to access their vehicle’s software for the purposes of repair. In 2018 this exemption was extended to third parties, thus legalizing the work that many repair professionals were already doing.
However, the fight is far from over. In response to these DMCA exemptions, many manufacturers have started including repair restrictions in their end use licensing agreements. In response, many farmers are now teaming up with digital rights advocates and repair activists to fight for a “right to repair” to be formally recognized and codified in state law. They face fierce resistance from both tractor manufacturers and major tech companies such as Apple and Microsoft.
Even when this fight is won, others loom on the horizon; the existing repair exemptions remain very specific, applying only to “smartphones,” “home appliances,” “home systems,” and “motorized land vehicles.” There remains a large swath of consumer electronics still closed off to those in need, or simply curious—a problem in a world where software is becoming ubiquitous, and copyright restrictions can increasingly feel like ransom demands.