Home » Help my robot lawnmower is on strike

Help my robot lawnmower is on strike

by Tech Reporter
27th Jul 23 12:36 pm

Technologist Glenn Shoosmith explains how new legislation that comes into force in the UK in July may pave the way for a right to repair your household appliances.

In a rite of passage well known to many of us, six years ago I moved out of London and traded a small London flat for something ‘with a bit more space’. With that, as we all understand, comes the inevitable obsession with lawn maintenance.

After a bit of a struggle, about four years ago I decided to look to the future and wanted to swap using a petrol mower for a nice fancy robot mower. It would use my solar panels to charge, it would create less pollution, it would take less time, it would leave my lawn pristine – although sadly without the stripes, but at least with a space left to grow for no-mow May (got to look after those all important pollinators right?). I could sit back, relax and watch my new robot slave work away, or so I hoped.

I picked a model from Husqvarna, which the local dealer dutifully installed with a guide wire and setup. The whole thing wasn’t cheap, but I figured it would last years and years and pay itself back.  One of my first questions was about how long it might last beyond the rather pitiful one-year factory warranty. They said that they’d had some running for seven years and only had to change the battery after about four years.

Roll forward four years later and guess what? The battery is starting to fail. The poor thing is limping along with one dead battery, sometimes just stopping somewhere on the lawn unable to make it back to its charging station, like a dying animal needing to be put out of its misery.

Now I like to think of myself as fairly practical, and certainly capable of wielding a screwdriver and changing a battery, so I started to search online for new and replacement batteries.

I found several companies selling batteries that claimed to be compatible with my mower, and ordered some. Three different sets of batteries later I had gone from happy with my mower, to extremely frustrated. It turns out that Husqvarna made a small tweak to their batteries, adding a little resistor that makes only their batteries work.  I was confronted by a complex array of changing spec per model and per year, which make 3rd party batteries hard to manage.

Oh yes, the mower starts up fine, it has power, but it just chirps at me cheerfully saying that it’s the wrong battery. It then refuses to talk to me any further and it won’t do any mowing. (We might all be fearing the coming AI robot apocalypse, but I’m not worried – as long as we can survive past their warranty expiration – they’ll all break down anyway!)

I can half see Husqvarna’s argument now – it’s a health and safety thing (gone mad, obviously). Having seen a few exploding e-scooters I could maybe buy that – except Husqvarna won’t even sell me an ‘original’ battery. No, they don’t list them on their website as spares, or replacement parts, and there’s no resellers either. I contacted Husqvarna about this directly and they simply told me that “I had to contract my local dealer and buy through them”.

Now that’s easier said than done, given my local dealer had gone out of business three years prior. Ever sympathetic, Husqvarna just pointed me to their dealer map, with the next one being 30 miles away.

Now, let’s be clear here. It’s a battery. It’s not rocket science. I should be able to change a battery myself, I shouldn’t need the dealer to come around and look at me like some kind of lame techno-luddite. I’m Gen X, and my father, a classic Boomer, is exactly the kind of person who would complain that “today’s youth don’t know how to fix anything”.

Well I would like to posit a different theory. The wealth of the Boomer generation was built on creating throwaway products and disposable everything, with “no user serviceable parts inside.”, Then they mock us with memes about a problem of their own making.

This has to change, and in theory it is starting to. For those not aware, there is a law that came into place two years ago in the UK around the “right to repair”.

The ‘Ecodesign for Energy-Related Products and Energy Information Regulations 2021’, sometimes referred to as the “Right to Repair Regulations”, were made in June 2021. The ‘right to repair’ provides ‘professional repairers’ with access to spare parts and technical information from July 2021, but manufacturers have a grace period of up to 2 years to make spare parts available. This is actually one area where we have currently gone along with Europe in this regard (and no I’m not getting baited into either praising or condemning the government – let’s not ruin this nice chat by taking political sides!).

Surely this means Husqvarna will soon be forced to sell me a battery directly, right? Well sadly not, this legislation only covers certain household items at this time. Washing machines, dishwashers, TV’s, fridges for example. It doesn’t even cover vacuums or robot vacuums, never mind their garden brethren. The US is currently attempting a similar set of laws, but in the classic style of US politics (no problem criticising the Americans), it’s been so gutted with exceptions and loopholes by special interest groups and companies with senators in their pockets that it’s of limited benefit for the consumer.

But, the winds of change are definitely in our favour. There is more and more political and social pressure for things to be repairable, whether from an environmental point of view, or a cost saving and cost of living point of view, pretty much everyone agrees that stuff should last longer, and we should be able to fix the stuff we own ourselves.

So what can we do about this ? Well the obvious answer is to vote with your feet, or rather your wallet, and only buy from companies that commit to real product lifetimes and to long term affordable service and repair. This question is, how as the consumer do you identify these companies?

Well my suggestion would be that, if we can’t legally force these companies into making serviceable products, we can at least embarrass them into it.

What we need in the UK is the equivalent of the food hygiene rating outside of that dodgy curry house. This would be similar to an energy rating but would show details of average lifespan and repairability. This would include access to manuals and spares, for the price of maintenance.

We then need to force companies to display this information prominently.  There is actually a precedent for this; France implemented a system like this, and it’s worked to some degree. It’s not perfect in that companies mark their own score card – but it’s a start.

We need something similar in the UK, but better. We need to take companies to task on their poor practices, for the sake of the environment, for the sake of our wallets, and for the sake of just not being mocked and patronised about not being able to change a battery!

While I wait for that to happen, I’ve got a lawn to mow. At least it will have stripes.

* Glenn Shoosmith Glenn is CEO of Prove Anything, a platform that connects people and brands through digital technology and block chain certification.  He is one of the original founders of JRNI (previously known as BookingBug) and he was formerly a technology advisor to No10 under David Cameron. 

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