Technology

The US has a long way to go before adopting a universal charger policy

USB Type-C, the most exciting boring connector in the industry right now.

Andrew Cunningham

After the European Union (EU) announced that numerous consumer tech devices using wired charging would require USB-C by 2024, three US senators are seeking a similar standard.

In a letter sent Thursday [PDF]Senators Edward Markey (D-Mass.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt) asked Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo to look toward a strategy that would require universal charging standards in consumer tech.

The senators didn’t mention USB-C but cited the EU’s upcoming legislation that will require smartphones, digital cameras, e-readers, headsets, laptops, and some other consumer tech products with wired charging to use USB-C.

As of writing, Secretary Raimondo hasn’t responded to the letter.

The senators asked the commerce secretary “to coordinate with offices and agencies across the Department of Commerce to develop a comprehensive plan that will protect both consumers and the environment by addressing the lack of a common US charging standard.”

Financial and environmental burden

The strongly worded letter focused on the “consumer electronics industry’s failure to establish uniform charging accessory standards” and subsequent “economic and environmental harm.”

It also pointed to EU data finding that in 2020, 38 percent of EU consumers had at least one time when they were trying to charge their phone and the only chargers around were incompatible.

This experience is ubiquitous for Apple iPhone users dependent on the proprietary Lightning port. Apple is the most well-known opponent of mandated USB-C charging in the EU. It claimed the policy would limit innovation and create more customer confusion and e-waste as Lightning chargers and accessories become obsolete.

Markey, Sanders, and Warren said such arguments preemptively, describing the chargers’ “planned obsolescence” as a financial burden for consumers.

The letter reads:

“Innovation should benefit consumers. It should not come at their expense, saddle them with incompatible accessories, and compel them to purchase different charging equipment for each device they own.”

A health concern

The senators urged government intervention, framing the debate as a health issue as well.

They pointed to new products making specialized chargers obsolete (looking at you, 30-pin connector) and are thrown away. EU data finds that chargers represent up to an estimated 11,000 tons of e-waste annually, the letter notes.

The senators wrote:

“When electronics are not disposed of properly, e-waste can spread toxins in water, pollute soil, and degrade the air we breathe.”

EU laid the groundwork, but obstacles remain in the US

In addition to using the EU’s data to make its argument to Raimondo, the senators asked her to follow EU legislators’ lead “by developing a comprehensive strategy to address unnecessary consumer costs, mitigate e-waste, and restore sanity and certainty to the process of purchasing new electronics.”

Still, there’d be a long way to go before we see USB-C or any charging solution standardized in consumer gadgets. It took the EU 10 years to pass its legislation, which isn’t expected to take effect until 2024. Along the way, it faced plenty of opposition from the likes of Apple.

Meanwhile, the debate for a standard charger policy is starting to take shape in the US. Markey, Sanders, and Warren weren’t specific about which tech products any standard should affect or the preferred charging standard.

The senators also didn’t suggest that a law should be passed but, rather, some sort of inter-agency discussion. Similar to the EU’s universal charging policy and the fight for the right to repair in the US, a common charging legislation in the US would likely face opposition from businesses and political groups who believe the government should be less involved. (It’s also worth mentioning notable movements in this space, including New York state passing the first electronics right-to-repair bill.)

Should the government look to standardize USB-C in some way, it’s helpful that many electronics have already adopted it willingly. Even Apple is reportedly testing USB-C charging for iPhones.

But it’s hard to ignore the argument that universal charging could use new charging techniques. While the EU said it would amend its policy if a new charging technology were better for consumers than USB-C, there’s obvious red tape to that approach.

Plus, knowing that any great innovation may become a selling point for your rivals could disincentivize R&D.

Depending on which products a common charger standard targeted, it could complicate things for companies that charge a premium for speedy, more ubiquitous USB-C. Similarly, it could impact products that take power over proprietary technology or alternatives like Micro USB, which can be bulkier and slower but cost less.

Regardless of the obstacles, senators believe the US government should follow the EU’s lead, which “wisely acted in the public interest.”

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