EU's universal device chargers debate intensifies as EU lawmakers eye tougher targets

11 February 2022 15:00 by Nicholas Wallace

Wireless Charger

Electronics makers may soon find themselves at loggerheads with EU lawmakers debating whether to toughen plans to standardize chargers for consumer devices.

Legislators in the European Parliament are debating whether or not to broaden the range of devices covered by a European Commission proposal to make USB-C sockets mandatory for wired charging, and whether or not to impose standards for wireless charging by 2025.

The draft amendments, which are still under discussion, could complicate and intensify the debate over whether mandatory EU charging standards will stymie innovation, particularly where dedicated chargers are designed around particular products, such as charging cases for wireless earbuds.

Proposals

The European Commission last year proposed revising the EU’s Radio Equipment Directive to require all smartphones, tablets, cameras, headphones, portable speakers and handheld videogame consoles to carry a USB-C charging port if they use wired charging up to 60 watts. It says the plan would reduce “electrical waste” created when people discard old chargers and cables by 1,000 metric tons per year.

Most device makers have already adopted USB-C for wired charging, but only recently. Chargeable devices produced just a few years ago are more likely to carry the fiddlier USB micro-B ports, which were the preferred standard in a voluntary “memorandum of understanding” among the commission and participating manufacturers in 2009.

Yet some companies continue to create their own chargers. Apple continues to use its proprietary Lightning port for charging iPhones and iPads — which would be illegal under the new rules — though its newer MacBooks are charged via USB-C.

The lawmaker steering the proposal through the parliament, Alex Agius Saliba from Malta, has suggested expanding the legislation to cover a much wider variety of devices, to standardize the use of wireless charging by 2025, and to cover any remaining devices that charge with up to 100 watts of power by 2030.

Agius Saliba’s plan is still a long way from becoming law: he needs to win the support of the Internal Market and Consumer Protection Committee and then, the full legislature.

Whatever version of the law the parliament agrees, he'll then be responsible for leading negotiations with member states in the Council of the EU, which agreed on their own version of the law on Jan. 26.

A longer list

Agius Saliba's report — which was published last month and discussed by lawmakers this week — proposes expanding the scope of the legislation in three ways.

First, he wants more portable devices to have USB-C ports if they use wired charging. Laptops, keyboards, mice, radios, earbuds, smartwatches, personal care devices like shavers, sport devices such as fitness trackers, satellite navigation devices, and toys would all be added to the list. The listed devices would have to comply if they require up to 100 watts from the wired charger, higher than the commission's threshold of 60 watts.

Second, the report would have the commission develop mandatory standards for wireless charging by the end of 2025. The EU's executive arm already proposed giving itself the power to do this in the future but didn't set a timeline, arguing that it was too early to enforce standards for the technology.

Third, any device with a charging requirement of up to 100 watts not already covered by the legislation would have to have an EU-mandated standard charger by 2030, with the commission required to define the relevant standards by the end of 2028.

The standardization process

But the plan to mandate standards across a wider range of devices and charging methods could prove more complicated than it sounds. The 2025 provision concerns devices charged by “any means other than wired charging.”

That wording wouldn’t only affect the likes of Qi wireless charging, where manufacturers design their products to work with flat charging panels made and sold separately by a variety of independent companies.

It would most likely also cover the use of more specialized chargers designed for products that don’t have a USB port because they’re too small or because it would impair water-resistance.

An obvious example would be the purpose-built charging cases for small wireless earbuds, such as those produced by Apple, Bose or Sennheiser. In addition to protecting the earbuds when not in use, charging cases recharge them using power from the case’s own, larger battery. Even if the case itself is charged by an EU-compliant USB-C port, consumers still need a compatible case to charge their earbuds, arguably defeating the purpose of the law.

Regardless of what technique a charging case uses to power the device — such as metal contacts or electromagnetic induction — its physical shape is designed around one particular product, making interoperability more or less impossible.

How the commission could standardize charging cases without radically changing product designs isn't at all obvious. A possible workaround might be for the law to treat earbud cases not as chargers but as part of the device being charged, since they have their own rechargeable batteries and are intended to be carried around with the earbuds inside.

Taking on Apple

The EU executive’s much narrower proposal had already divided opinion. Consumer groups welcomed it as a plan to make charging more convenient for consumers and to reduce electric waste.

Apple, on the other hand, may be the plan's most powerful adversary. The tech giant has warned that any standardization could slow innovation. In a report submitted to the commission last November, Apple — which wants to maintain its own proprietary Lightning charger — said that the two USB-C standards specified in the proposal are already out of date, having been revised in May 2021 to significantly increase their power delivery capabilities. The company said both standards had been revised frequently: one a dozen times since 2012, the other five times in five years.

The new law will only stipulate the charging connection to be used on the device itself, not how the charging cable or wireless charger connects to the power supply. Most cables used to charge small devices today either have an integrated mains plug or a USB-A plug that can be inserted into a mains adapter or a larger device, such as a computer. The law also won’t regulate connections on devices with batteries that have to be removed to be charged.

If EU institutions do decide to move ahead with bloc-wide standards for a wider range of chargers than originally planned, they'll need to be prepared to navigate the complexities that their draft changes present.

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