America has a long way to go before universal chargers become law

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

Andrew Cunningham

Three U.S. senators are seeking similar legislation after the European Union (EU) announced that many consumer tech devices using wired charging will require USB-C by 2024.

in a letter sent on Thursday [PDF]Senators Edward Markey (D-Mass.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt) asked Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo to seek legislation that would require a common rate of charge in consumer technology.

The senators did not mention USB-C, but referred to an upcoming EU policy that would require smartphones, digital cameras, e-readers, headphones, laptops and some other wired-charging consumer tech products to use USB-C .

Minister Raimondo had not responded to the letter by press time.

The senators asked the Secretary of Commerce to “coordinate with Commerce’s offices and agencies to develop a comprehensive plan to protect consumers and the environment by addressing the lack of a common U.S. rate.”

Financial and Environmental Burden

The strongly worded letter focuses on “the consumer electronics industry’s failure to establish a unified standard for charging accessories” and the “economic and environmental harm” that comes with it.

It also noted that EU data found that in 2020, 38% of EU consumers attempted to charge their phone at least once when the only charger around was incompatible.

This experience is ubiquitous for Apple iPhone users who rely on the proprietary Lightning port. Apple is the most prominent opponent of the EU’s mandated USB-C charging. It claims the policy will limit innovation and create more customer confusion and e-waste as Lightning chargers and accessories become obsolete.

Markey, Sanders and Warren made these arguments pre-emptively, describing the “planned obsolescence” of chargers as a financial burden on consumers.

The letter reads:

“Innovation should benefit consumers. It shouldn’t come at their expense, saddling them with incompatible accessories and forcing them to buy a different charging device for every device they own.”

health problems

Senators urged the government to intervene and frame the debate as a health issue.

They point out that new products make dedicated chargers obsolete (looking at you, 30-pin connectors) and thrown away. EU data found that chargers are estimated to be generating as much as 11,000 tonnes of e-waste each year.

Senators wrote:

“If electronic products are not disposed of properly, e-waste can spread toxins in the water, contaminate the soil and reduce the quality of the air we breathe.”

EU lays foundations, but U.S. hurdles remain

In addition to making an argument to Raimondo using EU data, the senators asked her to follow the lead of EU lawmakers “to develop a comprehensive strategy to address unnecessary consumer costs, reduce e-waste and restore process sanity. And certainty. Buy new electronics.”

Still, there’s still a long way to go before we see USB-C or any charging solution mandated in consumer electronics. It took the EU 10 years to pass the legislation, which is not expected to come into force until 2024. In the process, it faced a lot of opposition from companies like Apple.

At the same time, the debate over standard charger policy began to take shape. Markey, Sanders and Warren did not specify which tech products or preferred charging rates any criteria should affect.

Similar to the EU’s universal charging policy and the US fight for the right to repair, US co-charging legislation could face opposition from businesses and political groups who argue that the government should be less involved.

The right to repair is broader, though, because it requires technology suppliers to share and provide the documents and tools used to repair their products, and seeks to overturn the federal law to make it broadly effective. (It’s also worth mentioning notable changes in this area, including the passage of New York State’s first right-to-repair bill.)

If lawmakers want to mandate the use of USB-C, many electronics have already embraced it willingly. Even Apple is reportedly testing USB-C charging for iPhones.

But it’s hard to ignore the argument that universal charging could kill off new charging technologies. While the EU has said it will revise its policy if the new charging technology is better for consumers than USB-C, there’s clearly red tape with that approach.

Also, knowing that any great innovation could become a selling point for a competitor could inhibit R&D.

Depending on what lawmakers target, standard chargers could complicate companies charging for the fast, more ubiquitous USB-C. Likewise, it could affect products powered by proprietary technology or alternative technologies such as Micro USB, which are larger, slower, but less expensive.

Regardless of the obstacles, the senators argued that the United States should follow the lead of the European Union, which “acts wisely in the public interest.”

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