Lightning Strike: The European Commission proposes standardisation of USB chargers

October 8, 2021

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3 min read

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What's going on here?

The European Commission (EC) has launched a proposal requiring all small tech devices sold in the EU to use the USB-C charging port. This is likely to result in serious ramifications for tech firms; Apple in particular will feel the bite, given the unrivalled incompatibility of its devices with others on the market.

What does this mean?

The EC’s aim is to reduce electronic waste as consumers will be able to reuse old devices’ chargers. They also won’t need to purchase numerous different types of port for different small devices: the EC found that customers spend €2.4bn a year on chargers alone. Smartwatches and earbuds will be left untouched because of their smaller size and different functions, as well as wireless charging. Because new chargers will be uncoupled from each new device, consumers can reuse chargers from old devices and prevent buildups of useless old chargers in every household.

Tech firms will have two years to adapt their products to USB-C if they want to continue selling in the single market, from the date the proposal passes. Firms will also need to standardise their charging speeds within the same period.

What's the big picture effect?

With the EC estimating that there is 11,000 tonnes worth of electronic waste per year, a universal charging solution is sure to drastically reduce the number of chargers lying unused. The EC hopes this will save consumers €250m annually, mainly through uncoupling new chargers from each new device. Because consumers will be buying less, production of chargers is likely to slow down. This is bad news for manufacturers but good news for customers and the planet.  

Consumers will benefit greatly from the proposals in the long-term. The most important benefit is convenience: with all phones requiring USB-C, we will all be able to share chargers. There is the potential to save money on tech by opting out of an included charger, and reusing old USB-C chargers. In future we will definitely save space on charger storage, especially if universal charging is expanded to larger devices such as laptops as technology develops; Apple has already introduced USB-C ports to one product line: its MacBooks.

As we buy less and charger production slows down, tech will become a greener sector. The changes at every level of the global supply chain should cut greenhouse gas emissions by almost 200 kilo tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent. If successful, the idea may be taken up by other green-thinking economies as major small-device tech firms will have already adapted their products for the EU single market. Some commentators already expect firms to voluntarily roll out USB-C friendly products globally: this move would help them raise money from the increasing numbers of green investors. It preempts similar proposals by other regulators, and universal chargers may prove to be very popular with customers.

However, the proposal has been badly received by Apple which is arguing that it “stifles innovation rather than encouraging it”. It will be the hardest hit firm by the proposals as it insists on using its distinct lightning charger for its iPhones whilst Android companies have already adopted USB-C for newer models. With a 24-month transition period if the proposals pass, Apple has sufficient time to update existing products but a cost-benefit analysis may see it remove them from the shelves altogether. Apple will have to consider if the additional financial costs of Research and Development (R&D) and manufacturing will outweigh the cost of pulling certain models from sale in the EU, which represents just under 25% of Apple’s total sales. It will also become harder for Apple customers to repair old products or replace broken Lightning cables once new USB-C models are released. 

Whilst Lightning will be replaced by USB-C and tech companies will be forced into uniform wired charging, the market will likely seize the opportunity created by wireless charging, which remains untouched by the proposals. We can expect wireless innovations across the sector but especially from Apple which will once again set itself apart from the rest, for example by introducing port-less iPhones.

Report written by Phoebe Turner

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