After the European Union (EU) announced that many consumer devices with wired charging would require USB-C by 2024, three US senators are pushing for a similar standard.
In a letter sent on Thursday [PDF]Senators Edward Markey (D-Mass.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) asked Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo to explore a strategy that would require universal charging standards in consumer technology.
The senators made no mention of USB-C, but pointed to upcoming EU 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 this writing, Foreign Minister Raimondo has not responded to the letter.
Senators called on the Commerce Secretary to “coordinate with agencies and agencies across the Commerce Department to develop a comprehensive plan that protects both consumers and the environment by addressing the lack of a common US standard for fees.”
Financial and environmental burden
The heavily worded letter focused on the “failure of the consumer electronics industry to set consistent standards for charging accessories” and the resulting “economic and environmental damage.”
It also pointed to EU data showing that in 2020, 38 percent of EU consumers tried to charge their phone at least once and the only chargers nearby were incompatible.
This experience is ubiquitous for Apple iPhone users who depend on the proprietary Lightning port. Apple is the most notorious opponent of mandatory USB-C charging in the EU. It has been claimed that the policy would limit innovation and create more customer confusion and e-waste as Lightning chargers and accessories become obsolete.
Markey, Sanders, and Warren made such arguments preemptively, calling the “planned obsolescence” of chargers a financial burden on consumers.
The letter reads:
“Innovation should benefit consumers. They shouldn’t be at their expense, charging them with incompatible accessories and forcing them to buy different chargers for every device they own.”
A health problem
Pressing for government intervention, senators also framed the debate as a health issue.
They pointed to new products making specialized chargers obsolete (look at that 30-pin plug) and being thrown away. EU data shows that chargers account for an estimated 11,000 tonnes of e-waste annually, the letter said.
The senators wrote:
“If electronics are not disposed of properly, e-waste can disperse toxins in the water, pollute the soil and degrade the air we breathe.”
The EU has laid the groundwork, but there are still obstacles in the US
Not only did the senators use the EU’s data to argue with Raimondo, but they also asked them to follow the lead of EU lawmakers “in developing a comprehensive strategy to address unnecessary consumer costs, mitigate e-waste and use common sense and… Restore security of the process buying new electronics.”
Still, there’s still a long way to go before we see USB-C or a charging solution standardized in consumer devices. It has taken the EU 10 years to pass its legislation, which is not expected to come into force before 2024. She encountered a lot of resistance from companies like Apple.
Meanwhile, the debate about a uniform charging policy is taking shape in the USA. Markey, Sanders and Warren did not specify which technical products should be affected by a standard or which charging standard they prefer.
Nor did the senators propose passing a law, but some kind of interdepartmental discussion. Similar to the EU’s universal charging policy and the US right-to-repair fight, common charging legislation in the US would likely face opposition from business and political groups that believe the government should be less involved. (It’s also worth noting notable movements in this area, including the passage of New York State’s first Electronics Repair Right Bill.)
Should the government attempt to standardize USB-C in any way, it helps that 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 stifle new charging techniques. While the EU said it would change policy if a new charging technology was better for consumers than USB-C, that approach obviously comes with red tape.
Also, knowing that every great innovation can become a selling point for your competitors could reduce the incentive for R&D.
Depending on which products a common charger standard targets, that could complicate things for companies that charge a premium for fast, ubiquitous USB-C. Similarly, it could impact products replacing proprietary technologies 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 lead of the EU, which “has acted wisely in the public interest.”