Will the Switch to USB-C Be Good for Repair?

Will the Switch to USB-C Be Good for Repair?

Bowing to new regulations in the EU, Apple has put a USB-C port instead of a Lightning port in the newly released iPhone 15 line of devices. We hear a lot of understandable confusion about the consequences of this shift: Is it better or worse, for the environment, for repair, and for technical capacity?

In short, we expect this shift will have modest benefits for repair and the environment, plus significant benefits for consumer convenience. There may be some unintended negative consequences—consumers will have to buy a bunch of cables at first, and the design constraint could push manufacturers to move away from wired charging to lossy wireless charging. 

But overall, we think it’s a win. Here’s why.

What’s the New Law, Exactly?

The European Union is currently moving on an amendment to the Radio Equipment Directive of 2014 that will have drastic effects on consumer offerings. Beginning in December of 2024, the EU will require the implementation of the USB-C port as a common connector for nearly all electronic devices that feature radio communications. This means that anything from cell phones and laptops to Bluetooth-enabled coffee scales will need to feature USB-C in order to be made available for purchase in any member state of the union. 

Within the US, two such bills were proposed through the California and Connecticut state legislatures this year. The Connecticut bill died early in committee, but the California bill made it through the Assembly and made progress in the Senate. That bill may be reintroduced next year, and more bills are sure to come. 

The desire to regulate a common connector in the EU stems as far back as the early 2000s, when the European Commission worked with manufacturers to compile a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on the issue. This MOU took effect in 2009 and saw manufacturers agree to voluntarily develop such a common connector for charging and work to establish a standard and be fully compatible across devices. They found the MOU to be extremely successful, effectively reducing the number of charging solutions from major phone manufacturers from 30 down to just three. But there are some problems with this kind of voluntary agreement, as we’ve written about before: In the agricultural industry, Deere’s repair MOU has no enforcement teeth and still allows dealers to deny customers access to key features in diagnostic software. In the auto world, the major repair MOU conveniently leaves out a big chunk of the industry. The EU USB-C MOU (your dose of alphabet soup for the day) suffered from similar problems. There was a lack of cooperation from the largest smartphone manufacturer, who stuck with their own proprietary method over the USB solution. While this MOU was renewed twice, it expired in 2014 and left the Commission wanting to further push the issue. A new draft MOU was circulated as recently as 2018 but was eventually dropped over concerns that its scope was too limited and that it failed to reach higher levels of interoperability than already existed—enter Directive 2022/2380.  

The directive, which also requires manufacturers to provide options to purchase devices without the external power supply to charge them, comes as part of the EU’s efforts to harmonize standards across different sectors of the economy and reduce negative environmental impacts associated with electronics waste and emissions from shipping, manufacturing, and use over a product’s life  (all part of the so-called Circular Electronics Initiative). EU research suggests that switching to USB-C only could see major reductions in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and materials use, saving Europeans millions by way of mitigation of future environmental risks. While this mandate can only be enforced within the EU, it is set to have massive effects on electronics as we know them. Manufacturers will need to decide whether they want to create models specific to European markets or adapt their designs to incorporate the ports globally—which we’re seeing happen now. Ultimately, it may push manufacturers to move away from wired charging and data transfer altogether, which could undercut the environmental benefits if consumers needed to purchase new accessories to support the shift. 

Let’s break down some of the pros and cons, good news first.

Pro: Repairs Will Likely Be Cheaper, with Wider Interoperability

We’ve largely stayed out of the USB-C mandate fight, because it’s not directly related to repair. But still, repair should be positively impacted by this legislation—USB-C ports are typically cheaper to replace than proprietary connectors like Apple’s Lightning port, due to broader availability. On top of this, the shift means we should be able to expect a certain degree of interoperability of spare parts. One wouldn’t need to purchase a port specific to their device’s make (assuming that parts pairing isn’t implemented to prevent the use of non-original assemblies). 

Note: We worried that the iPhone 15 might have a paired USB-C port, meaning that you couldn’t swap ports between two identical phones. Luckily, our testing has revealed that Apple hasn’t blocked repair of that part just yet.

Pro: Fewer Chargers = Good for the Planet

There’s good evidence that the  swap to universal USB-C ports will help the EU to lower GHG emissions in several ways. 

Smaller Packages = Lower Shipping Emissions

Side-by-side image showing an iPhone 11 box next to an iPhone 14 Pro Max box; demonstrates the reduced package size allowed by EPS decoupling.
Bigger isn’t always better!

The provision requires manufacturers to sell a version of their products without the external power supply. That alone can make massive cuts to emissions associated with shipping. This is due to the slimmer packaging possibilities presented; an external power supply (EPS) is typically a large bulky block, whereas many devices are slim in profile and could be packaged in a way that allows for many more units per pallet than packaging containing an EPS as well. Apple themselves claimed that removal of power adapters from the iPhone 12 allowed for a 70% increase per pallet to the number of units shipped (great for both the environment and their bottom line).

Fewer Chargers = Less Toxic Mining, Less E-Waste

This change, too, could greatly reduce usage of materials used for charging tech like copper, zinc, and tin, as consumers would need to make a conscious choice to pick up another EPS. Again, Apple’s Environment page reported in 2021 that removing power adapters could save 861,000 tons of such materials

The European Commission, under the scenario of this directive, estimated reductions as high as 10.2% for GHG emissions, 4.4% for materials use, and 14.2% for e-waste. Chargers represent 12,000 tonnes of e-waste per year in the EU alone (weighing more than the Eiffel Tower), and the EU projects that universal charging requirements should reduce that by more than 5,000 tonnes per year.

Pro: Less Voltage Guesswork

The biggest immediate effect for consumers? No more guessing games of whether anyone might have a charger available that is compatible with their device. Because every device (and every EPS for them) with USB-C will be required to be compatible with USB power delivery, there will never be worries that a device may be receiving too much power compared to the rating it should be. This is because the protocol limits the voltage to a mere 5 volts initially, and sees the device communicate with the EPS to determine how much electricity should be allowed to flow into the device. This will effectively prevent any mishaps that can result from using mismatched chargers. Power delivery means that the different power profiles contained within the protocol allow a device and an EPS to “negotiate” the current that should be pushed through to the device and ensures that a selected profile isn’t more than it can handle. At the point of sale, options will be clearer than ever due to large pictograms on all products displaying whether the EPS is included with a given unit, meaning you can buy as many or as few EPS blocks as desired without ending up with unused extras.

Pro (maybe): Manufacturers Will Have to Innovate Differently

Another benefit of the move (depending on your perspective) is the idea that electronics manufacturers will need to innovate in ways outside of charging solutions for their products to stand out. All devices will carry, at a base level, the same potential for charging speeds thanks to the requirement that devices are compatible with the USB Power Delivery protocol, which carries a set of standardized power profiles. Manufacturers can select a profile that matches the rate they desire depending on the type of product and battery size employed. This change of scope in where a device can differ from other similar products may lead manufacturers to come up with designs that emphasize other features such as repairability,  higher quality displays, larger battery/storage options, and unique softwares to rise above the rest. While nothing in the directive prevents proprietary protocol implementation such as Samsung’s Super Fast Charging or Xiaomi’s Hypercharge, the fixed power profiles will ensure faster charging times than possible without USB PD.

Con: Rebound Effects

For all of the good that the impact assessment purports can possibly be done on GHG emissions and materials use, there remains the possibility that rebound effects in other related areas can reduce the actual savings (for a recent study of potential USB-C mandate rebound effects, see p. 350 of these conference proceedings) . 

Consumer behavior will determine the true extent to which reductions are seen—and these changes, while well-meaning, may themselves alter behaviors in a way that negates the good. For example, devices shipped without an EPS will likely be sold at cheaper prices than those shipped with one; these lower prices save the end user money, increasing disposable income available to them. (When the Samsung Galaxy line removed the EPS, there was a launch price decrease of $200 USD from the S20 to the S21—though of course, there were other changes between the models, too.)  This increase in purchasing power could then be used for any number of reasons that themselves contribute to GHG emissions, such as buying another device with the money saved by decoupling. Also, the use of USB-C across all devices could drive consumers to purchase extra EPS units for a household anyways so that multiple devices could be charging at the same time. 

Con: 2.0 or 3.0? Hard to Tell

Lumafield image showcasing x-ray scans of four different USB-C cables.
Buyer beware; you’ll get what you pay for. Industrial CT scan by Lumafield.

Another major consideration: different cables are built with different purposes in mind. As it stands, any cable rated above 60W ought to be a full-featured cable, supporting USB 3.0 at a minimum. This standard allows for data transfer rates of up to 5 Gbps, a major upgrade from the 540 Mbps allowed by USB 2.0. The issue for consumers, however, is that cables supporting 3.0 would be indistinguishable on the outside from those on the 2.0 standard. Cables under 60W would be an even bigger guess, as those cables can function without an “e-marker”—these markers serve as a way to communicate the cable’s capabilities to a device with immediate effect. While a consumer can be sure that the listed wattage (and therefore charging capabilities) are up to snuff for their use, they’ll need to be much more discerning if they hope to use the cable for some of the finer features USB-C has to offer. 

That said, not all USB-C ports are enabled to handle higher data transfer rates (and the standards themselves can be difficult to discern). Whether your choice of cable matters for much can be determined by the protocol carried by the device, as a given controller may not be configured to use the newer standard (as is the case with the base model of the iPhone 15, which carries USB 2).

Con (maybe): Durability?

Some reports suggest that USB-C ports and/or cables may be less durable than Lightning counterparts. Given that comparisons in the same product line haven’t been possible until the iPhone 15, it’s hard to say. Only time will tell whether failure rates on iPhone 15 charge ports and cables are higher than on the iPhone 14.

Con (maybe): Manufacturers May Innovate Away from USB

Lastly, the move could drive some manufacturers down a different road entirely in the name of product differentiation: they could abandon wired charging outright. Due to the USB PD requirement, manufacturers will need to include an IC microcontroller capable of limiting the current upon an initial connection, with repeat checks every 10 seconds. It is entirely possible that such assemblies prove to inhibit the possibilities to shake up designs in later models, meaning that removal outright could prove enticing. We’ve already seen companies like Apple and Samsung expand upon wireless charging in big ways, especially as they move to close the efficiency gap that has been documented between wired and wireless solutions. Given how hard Apple was willing to fight this move at first, a swap away would still be compliant with the directive when it takes effect. 

TL;DR: USB-C Mandates Are Probably Good, but How Good Depends on Implementation

Unfortunately, in the end it falls to consumers to ensure that the switch to universal use of USB-C ports will yield the desired effects. While the European Commission has taken great pains to make the transition as easy to understand as possible for the public, whether the change reduces waste and manufacturing excess will come down to whether consumers know what they need. Pictograms and updated language/markings help with this, but the nuances of USB standards and capabilities can take even seasoned techies some time to understand thoroughly. The Commission has been empowered to continue to monitor the situation and make adjustments where they see fit, so time will tell whether behaviors remain within the assumed range. To do so, they’ll need to monitor sales data for charging solutions to determine whether behaviors change, as well as ensuring that products being made available for sale actually comply with standards. 

Meanwhile, we’ll be keeping an eye on what this shift means for failure rates of charge ports—please drop us a note in the comments if you’re seeing any differences in your own experience. And you can always join us in the fight for other laws that improve repairability of all kinds of things.