New EU rules requiring standard ports for consumer electronics, like smartphones, are a big win for the environment—and consumers’ wallets.
Each week, we will bring you the top repair news from around the world, curated for iFixit by the folks over at the Fight to Repair blog.
The Big News:
EU Parliament Takes a Bite Out of E-Waste: Makes USB Type-C Chargers Standard
Starting in autumn 2024 there will be no more hunting around in your kitchen drawer and scrutinizing the anatomy of charging adapters. That’s because the EU Parliament has declared that USB Type-C chargers will be the common charging port for a vast array of electronic devices including mobile phones, tablets, and cameras.
In a statement released this week, the EU Parliament announced that it reached a provisional agreement establishing a single charging solution for certain electronic devices. The new law is a part of a broader EU effort to make products in the EU more sustainable, reduce electronic waste, and make consumers’ lives easier, the Parliament said.
Samsung Galaxy Note20 Ultra USB-C Port Replacement
How to remove or replace the USB-C port on a Samsung Galaxy Note20 Ultra.
Under the new rules, consumers will “no longer need a different charging device and cable every time they purchase a new device, and can use one single charger for all of their small and medium-sized portable electronic devices.” Fifteen types of common electronics are covered by the rule, including mobile phones, tablets, e-readers, earbuds, digital cameras, headphones and headsets, handheld video game consoles, and portable speakers that are rechargeable via a wired cable. All will have to be equipped with a USB Type-C port, regardless of their manufacturer. Laptops will also have to be adapted to the requirements by 40 months after the entry into force, the Parliament indicated.
The charging speed is also harmonized for devices that support fast charging, allowing users to charge their devices at the same speed with any compatible charger.
A Decade of Work on Charging Cord Fragmentation
The new rules are the result of years of effort. The European Commission has been looking to limit the “fragmentation” of the market for charging interfaces and protocols. While there have been previous deals with manufacturers to standardize certain protocols, many (including Apple) still promoted proprietary, vendor specific interfaces for mobile phones. As this article at treehugger.com notes, the latest effort is part of the European Green Deal that targets how products are designed and promotes circular economy processes. That includes a “right to repair.” By doing away with the proliferation of proprietary charging cords, the EU Parliament estimates it will save consumers €250 million ($263 million) annually on “unnecessary charger purchases.” The new rules will also help the environment: disposed of and unused chargers are estimated to represent about 11,000 tonnes of e-waste annually and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by about 180 thousand metric tons per year.
Reinforcement of Frayed or Damaged Charging Cords
5V USB. Frayed or Damaged Charger Cord Repair. Extending life of cord.
The Profits in Pollution
Apple—which has promulgated a number of different charging adapters over the years, including its proprietary Lightning adapter—fought the proposal, saying it was “concerned that regulation mandating just one type of connector for all devices on the market will harm European consumers by slowing down the introduction of beneficial innovations in charging standards, including those related to safety and energy efficiency.”
The rule will have a direct impact on Apple’s bottom line, at least in the short run. As this article in Bloomberg notes, Apple makes millions licensing its proprietary adapter technology to accessory makers who want to sell into its iPhone and iPad user base. That torrent of licensing revenue has been suspected to influence other design decisions, such as Apple’s decision to stop shipping iPhones with standard 3.5mm headphone jacks—a decision that pushed users to its (non-repairable) wireless Bluetooth AirPods or earphone jacks that use its proprietary Lightning adapter.
Google Pixel 3a USB-C Port Replacement
Remove and replace a damaged USB-C port for the Pixel 3a.
Growing Need for Standardization
But personal electronics like smartphones and tablets are hardly the only types of products in which manufacturers are using proprietary interfaces and protocols to “lock in” customers and profits. As Kyle Wiens of iFixit noted in this interview for the Fight to Repair newsletter, this conversation is one that is playing out (big time) in the automotive market, where all manner of software-driven features—including driver assistance features like accident avoidance and lane assistance—lack standardization.
Wiens noted, for example, that the tooling to calibrate accident avoidance cameras, say when a car has its windshield replaced, is totally different from car manufacturer to car manufacturer. That makes it impossible for independent auto glass replacement providers—let alone your corner service station—to be able to support that repair. “You gotta come up with standardization and modularity around these things. As we’re moving into the new computerized future, we’re just not getting those kinds of standardization efforts,” he said.
When DRM Comes for Your Wheelchair (Eff.org)
Any product that travels with you is likely to break, eventually. A product that is designed solely for indoor usage but gets used outdoors is even more at risk. But for powered wheelchair users, this situation is gravely worsened by an interlocking set of policies regarding repair and reimbursement that mean that when their chairs are broken, it can take months to get them repaired.
This has serious consequences. Wheelchairs are powerful tools that enable mobility and freedom. But broken wheelchairs can strand people at home—or even in bed, at risk of bedsores and other complications from immobilization—away from family, friends, school, and work. Broken wheelchairs can also be dangerous for their users, leading to serious injuries.
Stranded is a new report from the Public Interest Research Group (PIRG), based on interviews with 141 wheelchair users about their experiences with mechanical and electrical failures in their powered chairs. The report documents the dismally frequent incidents of wheelchair failures (93% of respondents needed wheelchair service in the previous year, 68% needed two or more repairs), and the long service delays that wheelchair users must endure (62% waited four or more weeks for each repair; 40% waited seven or more weeks).
Opening This Article Voids the Warranty (Watershed Sentinel)
The loss of repairability is not a consequence of technological progress or increasing complexity—it should arguably be the opposite. Complex systems science pioneer W. Brian Arthur explains the two primary mechanisms of improving a technology: “internal replacement,” or changing the existing parts; and “structural deepening,” which means adding new components.
Neither of these require that new parts and components cannot be modular, replaceable, and repairable. Complexity, in fact, is all about modularity and heterogeneity, and can be an argument in favor of repair. The concepts of internal replacement and structural deepening, if anything, are the philosophy of repair as a creative process. New parts or mechanisms that come from repair contribute to an invention: potential new applications of the device, a new approach to manufacturing, and personalization of the item. A creatively repaired device is where the social network merges with the technological one. However, that is not in the interests of the manufacturing lobby—this network is one of capital accumulation.
Regarding the warranty-voiding title, the author notes:
The legislative and legal battle over who can fix modern gadgets pits manufacturing Goliaths against a plucky army of Davids, including a loose regiment of local independent repair shops.
Shop owners have been mobilizing their customers and calling on their fellow shop owners to help overcome manufacturer opposition and enact reforms—and it’s working. Repair voices including Louis Rossman (repair shop owner and YouTube host), as well as Repair.org, were critical to the recent victory in New York, where the legislature passed the nation’s first Right to Repair bill for electronics.
FTC Chair Says Right to Repair a Top Priority (Tirereview.com)
Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Chair Lina Khan used a May hearing of the House Appropriations Subcommittee hearing to signal her agency’s support for rooting out illegal repair restrictions, calling it “a top priority for the commission,” especially as “the growing digitization just gives additional tools and levers for…auto manufacturers to be manipulating what types of repairs can and cannot occur.”
Rep. David Joyce (R-OH), co-sponsor of the Save Money on Auto Repair Transportation (SMART) Act, highlighted rising car repair costs for American families due to repair restrictions.
“I’d like to focus a minute on repair restrictions, specifically those restrictions that drive up the cost of auto repair…[w]ith record inflation, it is set to cost American families an extra $5,200 this year,” Joyce said. “Considering that a repair for a simple fender bender averages nearly $4,000 today, a 26.4% increase in just five years. What more do you believe can be done with respect to automobile repair restrictions—whether on patent abuse or data controls—to bring down the cost of auto repairs for American consumers?”
Echoing the FTC’s 2021 Nixing the Fix report, Chairwoman Khan noted that modern repairs “often require specialized tools, difficult-to-obtain parts, and access to proprietary diagnostic software.” Repair restrictions limiting access to this information, she argued, “have made consumer products more difficult to fix and maintain.”
The right to repair isn’t only about consumer electronics or even farmers’ rights, as we discovered during the early, panic-stricken months of the pandemic. Then, hospitals urgently needed to repair or service critical medical equipment but found that sometimes manufacturers wouldn’t provide proprietary repair manuals or supply replacement parts. In March 2020, for example, an Italian hospital was unable to obtain valves for its ventilators from their manufacturer. Volunteers designed and 3D-printed 100 replacements at a cost of a dollar each. In normal times, those engineers might well have been prosecuted by the manufacturer for infringing its intellectual property rights. So sometimes the right to repair isn’t just a geeky obsession but a matter of life or death.