Science

USB-C is on track to become the charging cable standard in the EU

The wheels of the European Union bureaucracy are slowly turning in its quest to crush e-waste. The law requiring that all new smartphones and other similar electronic devices sold within the 27 member countries have a USB-C charging port—last reported on by PopSci back in Junehas now overwhelmingly passed a vote in the European Parliament. It is on track to come into force by the end of 2024. Its intention is to reduce some of the 11,000 tons of e-waste made up of discarded and unused chargers.

While this is often portrayed as big news for Apple, it affects far more device makers at every level of the market. Although this law has been in the works for a while, it has had to clear several stages to get to this vote and there are still a few more to go. But given the level of support it has among EU member states (the vote was passed 602 for and 13 against with 8 abstentions) and the provisional agreement reached this summer, it seems like the final steps to get it over the finish line will be a formality. 

The next step is for the European Council, the EU’s upper legislative body, to approve the law (technically called a Directive). That is likely to happen in the next few weeks and once it does, it will be published in the EU Official Journal and become a formal policy 20 days later. From that point, each member state will have 12 months to transpose the Directive into their national laws and another 12 months to start applying them. This timeline estimates that almost all portable electronic devices will have to use a USB-C charging port by the end of 2024. 

The list of devices affected is long. It includes mobile phones, tablets, digital cameras, headphones, headsets, earbuds, portable speakers, handheld video game consoles, e-readers, keyboards, mice, portable navigation systems, and more. 

Laptop makers get an additional two years grace. They won’t have to incorporate USB-C until spring 2026. Also, the law only includes devices that are “rechargeable via a wired cable.” The EU is working to standardize wireless charging but, for the time being, wirelessly charged devices are exempted. 

There’s one other caveat: this only applies to devices “operating with a power delivery of up to 100 Watts.” More powerful electronics like toasters, ovens, washing machines, and the like aren’t going to have to add a USB-C port any time soon. 

One interesting quirk is that the law requires consumers be able to purchase any device with or without a charger. Some companies like Apple and Amazon already sell a lot of their portable electronics without a bundled charger, but this will likely change how many electronic devices are sold within the EU. 

According to the EU, the changes to the law “will lead to more re-use of chargers and will help consumers save up to 250 million euro a year on unnecessary charger purchases.” 

Of course, while the reasons behind the new laws are largely good, the effect on consumers remains to be seen. Varying power and data transmission standards across devices have made the USB-C situation a “total mess.” Although all USB-C devices use the same port, they don’t all support or require the same power or data transfer speeds. Some cables max out at 5 Gbps, others at 40 Gbps—with no indication on the cable.

According to the EU, “dedicated labels will inform consumers about the charging characteristics of new devices, making it easier for them to see whether their existing chargers are compatible.” However, this puts a large burden on consumers to know what chargers they have and need for their devices.

For the tech savvy capable of parsing the arcane symbols on the boxes, the law will likely be a good thing. Interoperable devices and chargers will make it simple for people to travel with just a single cable, and they will be able to ensure that their devices always get the fastest possible charging and data transfer speeds. There are likely to be many regular consumers getting incredibly slow charging speeds with their laptops because they are trying to use a 5 Watt wall wart to power a device that needs a 85 Watt charger.

Regardless, the new EU policy is already inspiring lawmakers around the world. This summer, three Democratic senators—Bernie Sanders of Vermont, and Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey of Massachusetts—called for the US to introduce similar laws.With the single common charging standards now sorted, EU lawmakers are turning their attention to other tech issues. This week it unveiled a series of new draft rules that would make it easier for people to sue AI companies for harm. It will be years if or when they take effect, but like this USB-C charging situation, it could one day have a major world wide impact.



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