Friday, March 24th 2017

Jailbreaking American Tractors with Ukrainian Firmware

Tractors are some of the most beloved and benign pieces of automotive technology, and some of the very first applications of the internal combustion engine, after cars. Tinkering with the classic free-breathing (natural aspiration) engines of old tractors is something arguably every mechanical engineer has ever done. Over the ages however, tractors and other farm equipment have gotten increasingly complex. The engines became smaller (and hence more fuel-efficient), and technologies such as turbochargers and electronic fuel injection shored power and torque back up to the levels of larger free-breathing engines. Running the engine is now handled by a small embedded computer called the ECU (engine control unit). Likewise, running the various ancillaries on farming equipment such as harvesters have been governed by electronics. The more there's electronics, the less there is that a spanner can fix, and that has become a big problem in America.

Some popular farm equipment manufacturers such as John Deere have taken greed cleverly disguised as "quality assurance" to the same levels as the Apple iPhone. On the iPhone, you can't just install third-party software that hasn't been vetted by Apple and distributed through the App Store. Free software activists have criticized this for stiffing innovation, because Apple's software doesn't give users unrestricted access to the hardware that they've paid for. John Deere and some of its competitors are in the same league. They've outfitted their tractors and farm equipment with electronics that make it practically impossible to perform "unauthorized" repair. If your crop is up for harvest and your harvester is throwing a fit, you have no option but to take it back to a John Deere service center, or other repair shops "authorized" by the company. If you've replaced a part yourself, a guy with a laptop has to come over to your farm, and "activate" that part. American farmers aren't taking kindly to this, and help is coming from the most unlikely of places.
Back in October 2016, John Deere made its customers sign a license agreement to purchase their equipment, which forbids unauthorized repair or modification; and prevents farmers from suing the company for "crop loss, lost profits, loss of goodwill, loss of use of equipment … arising from the performance or non-performance of any aspect of the software (driving the equipment)." This presents an existential threat to farmers, as their livelihoods are at the mercy of receiving product service from only one source (manufacturer and its licensed shops), and prevents them from fixing the equipment on their own, should they go down at an inopportune time.

Here's what's wrong. John Deere wants to control the supply of spare parts for its products. Each time you replace a major part (eg: the transmission case), the part change has to be updated onto the ECU. The ECU is connected all major components of the tractor, and stores a table with their electronic serial numbers. When a part is replaced, its serial number has to be registered with the ECU, so it can validate that a genuine John Deere part has been installed. Trouble is, this validation costs some serious dime - John Deere charges $230, plus $130/hr for an "authorized mechanic" to drive into your farm and validate the part by plugging in the ECU to a laptop with the validation software.
Activists are pushing state-level legislation in the US state of Nebraska, that invalidates John Deere's agreements, and grants farmers the "right to repair" their equipment. In the meantime, farmers are taking to the Internet, for a Ukrainian custom firmware available on certain Eastern European invite-only, paid online forums. Farmers can flash the ECU and other electronics of their farm-equipment with this custom firmware, which effectively jail-breaks them, making them easier to repair. This has sprung up an entire industry of ECU modding equipment and unauthorized software, which isn't free, but is a must-have for any farmer. The key-generator that spits out part-validation keys goes for $99, firmware PayLoad (PLD) file encryptor/decryptor, which gets through John Deere's encryption, goes for $499, and cables that plug your tractor to a PC, for about $80. They may seem expensive and perhaps even predatory, but for farmers who intend to run their tractors for over a decade, it's a windfall in long-term savings.

This brings back the classical debate about whether you truly own the hardware of a $1000 iPhone, and if not, why not. When farmers pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for their farm equipment, shouldn't they completely own it, and use/repair it as they please? Or has purchasing a tractor become purchasing a service rather than a product? Tell us in the comments below.
Source: Vice
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53 Comments on Jailbreaking American Tractors with Ukrainian Firmware

#1
P4-630
Cool! Tractor tech on TPU! :cool::D
Posted on Reply
#2
RCoon
This reminds me of a supplier of one of our large batches of PCs. Their warranty dictates that we are not allowed to diagnose and repair a machine, it must be sent back to base for them to do (this could take up to 30 days). PSU blows up, we go to the PC, switch out the PSU, resolve the problem, then put the broken PSU back in, call their RMA service and specifically tell them the PSU is broken (but uh we don't know how we came to that conclusion), and then we get our PC back with a replacement PSU in a quarter of the time. I miss the days when we could literally ask for a PSU, they'd sent it next day, we'd replace it and send the old one back and be charged if we're wrong. Machine down for 30 days vs machine down for 1 day. This only really benefits one person, and it's not the person it should be - me.
Posted on Reply
#3
yogurt_21
When farmers pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for their farm equipment
ftfy
Posted on Reply
#4
P4-630
If I owned such tractor I'd do the same!
My dad had 2 cars of him letting modify the ECU which increased HP, wonder if they do this tweaking as well.
Posted on Reply
#5
TheGuruStud
Oh, look, more "legal" extortion and it absolutely is a predatory practice.

Looks like all of our decades old (all the way to the 70s) tractors will continue to stay in service. Also, newer john deere's are POS and they can't even repair them properly.
Posted on Reply
#6
TheMailMan78
Big Member
No replacement for displacement.
Posted on Reply
#7
ruff0r
For a moment i thought it was 1st April.
Posted on Reply
#8
Beertintedgoggles
Awesome! Don't tell me what I can and can't do with my OWN property (I live in a township and don't have the restrictions as those within the city limits.... yet. Different scenario I know but also the same.)
Posted on Reply
#9
Brusfantomet
Interesting that the law in the US allows this kind of operation.

That clause directly infringes on the consumer rights here in Europe, and at least in Norway the EULA comes after the local laws, meaning that something like the HumancentiPad or other less extreme cases gets culled.
Posted on Reply
#10
HTC
Meanwhile, them farmers should show John Deere company the respect they deserve by doing further tractor / farm equipment purchases from their direct competition.
Posted on Reply
#11
yogurt_21
Brusfantomet
Interesting that the law in the US allows this kind of operation.

That clause directly infringes on the consumer rights here in Europe, and at least in Norway the EULA comes after the local laws, meaning that something like the HumancentiPad or other less extreme cases gets culled.
you kidding this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to predatory practices.

if someones proprietary corn cross-pollinates with your regular corn field, you must now pay them and only use their corn from that point on or grow no corn at all.

you want that 1200$ riverbed? it's going to cost 10,000$ in licensing to make it work. ANNUALLY

tell me that isn't bait and switch?

used car? blue book 2000$, major component replacement cost? 5000$

poor? have trouble paying? we'll make your payments 2x what you can afford because you're poor...

rich? we'll make your payments 1/4 of what the poor guy pays every month.

everything here is setup that way.

'Merica F Yeah!
Posted on Reply
#12
dorsetknob
"YOUR RMA REQUEST IS CON-REFUSED"
btarunr
This brings back the classical debate about whether you truly own the hardware of a $1000 iPhone, and if not, why not. When farmers pay tens of thousands of dollars for their farm equipment, shouldn't they completely own it, and use/repair it as they please? Or has purchasing a tractor become purchasing a service rather than a product? Tell us in the comments below.
John Deere Sale'sman to Farmer Customer

"Of Course Its Based on Windows 10 software so its ultra Reliable and always up to Date and as such will require an always on Internet Connection"

what you don't have Broadband Internet here let me hook you up with comcast/AT&T Contract for $200 a month(Special price for farmers )
your need it as the Vehicle needs to be online to use our software before you can use it to work.
Posted on Reply
#14
eidairaman1
The Exiled Airman
Next thing their great big tractors will say not for commercial use...
Posted on Reply
#15
john_
The problem with those practices, is that they eventually pass the Atlantic and come to Europe.
Posted on Reply
#16
dorsetknob
"YOUR RMA REQUEST IS CON-REFUSED"
john_
The problem with those practices, is that they eventually pass the Atlantic and come to Europe.
Europeans will in that case buy Russian tankstractors and have whats left of the EU start legal Challanges
and in the meantime America loses Sales and much more
Posted on Reply
#17
TheinsanegamerN
International Harvester doesnt do this, and I think it isnt a surprise that I've seen more and more red IH tractors, and fewer and fewer green deere tractors every time I go into the rural back-lands to visit my parents.
Posted on Reply
#18
HTC
dorsetknob
Europeans will in that case buy Russian tankstractors and have whats left of the EU start legal Challanges
and in the meantime America loses Sales and much more
Farmers don't have to buy them from other countries, so long as whatever company they end up choosing doesn't have these kind of practices.
Posted on Reply
#19
Divide Overflow
What's the best stable overclock and voltage for a 2017 John Deer? :D
Posted on Reply
#20
hojnikb
Divide Overflow
What's the best stable overclock and voltage for a 2017 John Deer? :D
You mean whats the highest you can push the turbo pressure and fuel flow :D
Posted on Reply
#21
Easy Rhino
Linux Advocate
Wow, a company protecting its brand and its business model. This is going to happen more and more. Get used to it.
Posted on Reply
#22
rhythmeister
TheMailMan78
No replacement for displacement.
Well, a pair of turbos on a well built engine sort of negates the need for large displacement.
Posted on Reply
#23
Steevo
I load firmware on AG and Industrial machines for a living, primarily the GPS system. If you change a transmission case you don't have to refresh anything, but to swap a transmission controller you need to load firmware, heat the transmission to correct operating temperatures, and perform a calibration. So a tech is required, and there is liability in loading the wrong firmware, incorrectly performing a transmission calibration that may damage hard components if clutch fill/response time is wrong.

The same applies to many things as Deere and many other companies are building CAN BUS universal control modules that fit many applications so they can capitalise on economy of scale.

I'm not condoning their actions, and I think a customer should be able to fuck it up if they want, but they should lose their warranty.
Posted on Reply
#24
DeathtoGnomes
Steevo
I load firmware on AG and Industrial machines for a living, primarily the GPS system. If you change a transmission case you don't have to refresh anything, but to swap a transmission controller you need to load firmware, heat the transmission to correct operating temperatures, and perform a calibration. So a tech is required, and there is liability in loading the wrong firmware, incorrectly performing a transmission calibration that may damage hard components if clutch fill/response time is wrong.

The same applies to many things as Deere and many other companies are building CAN BUS universal control modules that fit many applications so they can capitalise on economy of scale.

I'm not condoning their actions, and I think a customer should be able to fuck it up if they want, but they should lose their warranty.
I worked for JD decades ago, they were out to milk the customer back then in he 80s, they havent changed since. Normal business practice was if a shop got a bad rep for any number of dirty greedy tricks including double billing, they closed up that shop and moved elsewhere, a few counties or states.

I also know JD is not the first to do this kind of thing, a few Truck manufacturers tried this and failed. Some even partnered with Cummins and Detroit Diesel to put hooks into the engine ECMs that forced repairs only at authorized dealers, because Cummins want direct access, thru dialup to a trucks ECM, in an attempt to even bypass authorized dealers from making computer repairs and "adjustments". The failure of this plan was that even us techs could not adequately diagnose engines and Alison automatics. Know that JD found a way to make that work like this you have to give them props for being bigger a****oles than Cummins.
Posted on Reply
#25
Caring1
Easy Rhino
Wow, a company protecting its brand and its business model. This is going to happen more and more. Get used to it.
No different than most new vehicle manufacturers voiding warranties if non genuine parts are used.
Posted on Reply
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