Smart Phones but Dumb Designs, Advocates Push EU on its Eco-Design Proposal

Smart Phones but Dumb Designs, Advocates Push EU on its Eco-Design Proposal

Repair Roundup Week of September 26

As the EU drafts its laws governing how cell phones are designed, experts and advocates are weighing in to sharpen the regulation’s teeth. Plus: Are tech companies faking their support for the right to repair?

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:

Eco-Design Eliminates E-Waste

The proposed smartphone regulations include this ecolabel, which rates products’ repairability (alongside durability, water ingress, and battery charge cycles).

As part of its Circular Economy Action Plan developed in 2020, the EU is working to develop regulations on smartphones to ensure they use less energy and that repairs can be made easily. The ultimate goal is for the government to limit the energy consumption of and waste created by electronics, by focusing on its source, at the point of production. As part of this process, the government has recently closed its public feedback period—which solicited information from the public and experts.

In January, iFixit signed onto feedback alongside the Environmental Coalition on Standards (ECOS), which argued for stronger regulations to ensure companies deliver on this need for smartphones to last longer through mandatory design requirements for things like durability and repairability.

Beyond a Buzzword: Making Eco-Design Stick

Other repair advocates and leaders in the circular economy space weighed in on this draft European law. Arguments for improving the draft legislation spanned a number of issues including:

Enforceable Regulations and Standards: Critics such as RREUSE argued that unless the eco-design directives for smartphones are written in a way that is enforceable, the law will be less impactful than needed. Apple’s repair program which sends customers a 79 lb suitcase of tools to repair a single iPhone might be an example of that.

Software Obsolescence: The Free Software Foundation Europe argued that software obsolescence is a key component of repairable design. Unless companies are forced to create ecosystems and software that devices can operate in for long spans of time, their consumers will instead be pushed to buy new phones and trash their existing devices. Consumers are commonly put in the position of having a phone that has working parts but is running on software that is no longer supported. Or worse, their device is kept from accessing certain functions like downloading apps because the phone’s software isn’t up to date.

Parts Pricing: The new draft legislation eliminates earlier controls of parts pricing, iFixit advocate Thomas Opsomer explained in a panel at FixFest. Because customers most often make the decision about whether to repair or replace due to the cost of repair, leaving the pricing of parts solely in the manufacturers’ hands means that they are likely to set prices high enough to discourage repair.

Overlooking Part Pairing a Fatal Error

The legislation makes no comment on “parts pairing”, a strategy companies use to prevent repair by linking parts to a specific device through software. That can prevent owners from re-using original parts salvaged from older devices as well as third-party replacement parts. By letting companies decide through software which parts are allowed into consumers’ devices, regulators give the keys to manufacturers to prevent repairs from happening.

By letting companies decide through software which parts are allowed into their devices, regulators give the keys to manufacturers to prevent repairs from happening.

Opponents of repairability will often cite cybersecurity concerns given the nature of smartphones being connected to the internet. According to Paul Roberts, Founder of Securepairs (and editor at Fight to Repair), “we know there is no link between repair and hacking because there is today an epidemic of hacking and data theft in the U.S. right now that includes attacks on portable mobile devices, and yet there is no right to repair portable electronic devices.”  Roberts says that “these rules, as written, risk locking in manufacturer control of the maintenance and repair market. With such a construct, OEMs can be expected to limit access by independent repair and engage in rent-seeking and other activities to boost their own bottom line at the expense of competitors and consumers.”

Eco-Design Done Right

Smartphones offer us a glimpse of repair in a rapidly digitizing world that shows no signs of slowing. Not only do these devices operate in complex software environments, but corporations are incentivized to sell more units rather than have devices repaired.

While the EU rules go further than anything close to being law in the United States, there remain a number of gaps in the proposal as it stands. Regulations on eco-design could be more performative in nature, or make big gains in managing the environmental impact that smartphones and electronics have broadly.

Other News:

Big Tech’s Superficial Support is Undermining the Right-to-Repair Movement (Digital Trends)

Apple kicked off the recent spate of manufacturer repair initiatives in the last year. It was a pleasant surprise from a company that has historically been downright adversarial to the right to repair. Samsung and Google quickly followed suit by making official OEM parts available for sale.

That’s all well and good, but both programs are far from perfect. Samsung’s repair program, for example, inflates the cost of a battery replacement by gluing the screen to the battery itself, whereas Apple’s repair program doesn’t offer replacement ports and connectors, which are particularly prone to failure. In Apple’s case, you can see this with the requirement of a software activation for a rear glass cover, despite the iPhone 14 being their most repairable device in years. Cory Doctorow, author and Special Advisor at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, describes another mechanism used by Apple to control repair:

“Apple does this bizarre thing where they engrave tiny logos on parts in assembly, inside the device. If you send a phone overseas to be stripped down, then shipped back to the U.S. as refurbished parts, they can be blocked at the border due to trademark tarnishment. This is because it has an Apple trademark on it that wouldn’t be obvious to a user without a jeweler’s loupe, and the part might not be as robust as a brand-new one. Apple routinely asks customs authorities to block reimportation of actual Apple parts made in Apple factories.”

There remain so many hurdles to right to repair that it can be easy to get pessimistic. Intense profit incentives and a quagmire of legalities seem stacked to erode consumer rights and leave a whole lot of toxic chemicals in an e-waste wake. Alternative modes of operating are gaining in visibility, but they require grassroots support to spread.

Removing the battery in the Apple Watch Ultra

Teardown: Apple Watch Ultra: Beautiful. Rugged. But is it Repairable? (iFixit)

While Apple made a big deal of features like a long-awaited Action Button, massive screen, and dive computer capabilities, it once again buried what may be the biggest leap in the Watch’s design. Just as it neglected to mention with its radically rebuilt iPhone 14, Apple has made a potentially giant step towards making the Watch more repairable.

It got less than a second of screen time in an hour-and-a-half presentation, but we caught it: a glimpse of an external screw on an Apple Watch. The staging was dimly lit, the shot was accompanied by lightning flashes (subliminal messaging?), and worst of all, the screw that peeped out was our nemesis, the dreaded pentalobe. But still—we never thought we’d see the day when we’d spot an exposed screw on an Apple wearable.

‘Car Talk’ Host: Independent Auto Shops Deserve the Right to Repair Your Car (Washington Post)

As a radio host who has advised thousands on their car problems and as an independent shop owner myself, I know all too well that car owners benefit when they have more choices. Congress is considering a national automotive “right-to-repair” law, and lawmakers need to pass it to protect your rights as a consumer.

Back in the old days, when people were still switching over from traveling by mastodon, you repaired cars with your eyes, ears, nose, and hands — and, if you were desperate, a Chilton repair manual. Now, you often repair a car by first plugging a computer into the on-board-diagnostics port and seeing what the computer tells you is broken.

So, what’s the problem? Carmakers and their dealerships want to maintain control of modern diagnostic tools, which forces customers to come to them for repairs. Even though independents are willing to pay to license these tools, dealers see an advantage in exclusivity.

My Car’s Infotainment Screen Broke—and It Highlights a Big Issue with Modern Cars (TomsGuide)

My car’s screen was sent off just under four weeks ago, and adjusting to the lack of a screen has been a challenge, to say the least. Partly because of the giant hole in the middle of my car, but also because of the features that needed the screen to operate. Had I been driving a Tesla Model 3 or Model Y, the loss of the center display would have been a full-blown catastrophe. That’s because neither car has a driver information screen behind the wheel, instead pushing all that information into the center console.

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Some of those features are pretty obvious. I can’t use my cameras or Android Auto, for example, because there’s no screen for those things to be seen. Likewise, while my car has physical buttons for things like climate control, fine-tuning the system now involves a heavy dose of guesswork. While my problems are incredibly minor and barely count as problems, it is indicative of a much bigger issue in the car world. The fact that hi-tech solutions, while super-convenient, are much more difficult to fix when things go wrong.

One of the many touted benefits of electric cars is that they require less maintenance, and thus cost you less in the long term. A lot of people do forget that the parts that do go wrong are inevitably more expensive to repair or replace. Much like the Leaf’s infotainment screen. Nissan told me that, after taxes and labor, a replacement infotainment screen would normally set me back somewhere in the region of £3,500 ($3,824). Had I not spent £350/$382 on an extended warranty, I’d have to choose between paying up or living without an infotainment system.

Why Wyoming Farmers Are Buying Old Tractors Instead of New Ones (Cowboy State Daily)

Tractors have become so technologically advanced, it’s impossible for farmers and ranchers to fix them, say “right-to-repair” advocates. Some farmers are lobbying their state legislatures for right-to-repair laws. Others are turning to the Eastern European gray market to snag their own repair software. That’s because manufacturers have a monopoly on repair software in the U.S., advocates argue. One Casper-area farmer said he’s found a simpler solution: Use old tractors.

“I’m on my way out to the hay field for the harvest right now, and the tractor I’m driving is 44 years old,” Bill Kossert said during a telephone interview Friday. “It still runs great, and it’s got everything I need, including air conditioning in the cab.”

The problem is, tractor manufacturers have a monopoly on their diagnostics software, he said. 

The software is usually available only to dealers’ repair shops, which aren’t allowed to share it with customers. So, even a minor problem can shut a tractor down and leave a farmer facing huge bills. Instead of fixing it themselves, they have no choice to use dealer-authorized repair personnel, which not only can be costly but could take days or even weeks.

“When you’re in the middle of a harvest and your tractor stops working because of an electronic problem, you’re sitting there with a 500,000-pound paperweight, and there’s nothing you can do about it,” Schweitzer said. That’s exactly what Schweitzer said happened to him couple of years ago during the middle of a hay harvest. His newer-model main tractor started randomly shutting down.

DePaul & Michigan Law Professors Weigh in on Right to Repair (Repair Driven News)

The CAR Coalition has released two research papers written by law professors that support the passage of federal legislation to support making OEM repair procedures and parts more accessible to give consumers the right to repair in both the collision and mechanical repair industries. However, the research shies away from efforts by insurers, often as a cost savings measure, to block reimbursements for repairs made using those procedures.

Each of the white paper authors tackles one of the bills—the REPAIR Act by Aaron Perzanowski, an author and University of Michigan law professor, and the SMART Act by Joshua D. Sarnoff, a law professor at DePaul University College of Law. Both said the compensation they received from the coalition didn’t sway the opinions they expressed and the research used in their papers.

Perzanowski states in his paper that federal law “has reflected a policy favoring equal access to repair information” for more than 30 years but, during that time, manufacturers have developed “techniques” to restrict repair information and access to tools to consumers and independent repairers.

Sarnoff’s paper is an update to a 2017 paper he wrote for a previous coalition on the right of repair. He argues in his paper that “for more than 60 years, the alternative collision parts industry has been offering quality alternative parts to consumers. Typically, these ‘aftermarket’ parts have been up to 50% less expensive than OEM parts, and the existence of that competition in the parts market has also induced OEMs to lower the costs of OEM parts to consumers by about 8%.”

Global Overview of Right to Repair: An Indian Perspective (iPleaders) 

This article comprehensively discusses everything about the right to repair—one that provides consumers freedom to repair and fix devices according to their own choices. The writing also provides a detailed analysis of the current status of the right to repair movement in India and across the world.

In light of the above discussion, it can be concluded that the right to repair is important for both the user and the environment. Even if a manufacturer does not benefit as much as the consumer, it can still develop newer and better products while still allowing users to repair existing ones. Technology advancements and reparability are not always contradictory. Moving toward a world where technology is not constantly discarded due to a single malfunctioning part would assist in reducing e-waste and environmental problems while also giving consumers choice over the things they buy and the ability to fix such devices.

Currently, there is no regulation regarding the right to repair in India. However, per an official statement issued by the Ministry of Consumer Affairs, a committee has been formed to develop a framework for the ‘right to repair’, chaired by Nidhi Khare, who is the additional secretary of the Department of Consumer Affairs. The committee held its first meeting on July 13th this year and identified important sectors where the consumer’s right to repair would be crucial.

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.