Mobile

As Galaxy S8 launches, did Note 7 blowup change anything?

Samsung hoped its new battery safety procedures would inspire the phone industry. Good luck with that.

The Galaxy Note 7 was banned from planes because of the risk of overheating batteries.

CNET

Months after the Galaxy Note 7 debacle, the topic remains too hot for the rest of the wireless industry to handle.

With Samsung's Galaxy S8 to launch next week, a renewed discussion of the Note 7, which had an unhealthy tendency to catch fire and which had to be recalled, is inevitable.

Samsung opened that door in January when it embarked on a mea culpa tour. Beyond spelling out the cause of the overheating problem in its popular phone, the company unveiled an eight-point battery check system it said surpassed industry practices, and it invited rivals to follow its model.

The upcoming Galaxy S8 was among the first phones to go through the new process.

"This is another opportunity to definitely increase the level of standard of excellence regarding lithium ion batteries, not just for Samsung, but throughout the entire industry," D.J. Koh, Samsung's mobile chief, said in an interview in January, touting the system as a potential global standard.

But two months after the introduction, what's the industry response? A collective shrug.

Interviews with phone makers and carriers found that while all placed a high priority on safety, few would talk specifically about Samsung's new battery check process or the idea of adopting it for themselves. Many expressed confidence that the processes they had in place were already sufficient.

Thanks to the Note 7, the explosive nature of lithium ion batteries is once again a fresh worry for consumers. Overheating batteries were behind all those hoverboards catching fire, and even temporarily delayed the rollout of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. Apple, too, dealt with battery fires, even if it blamed the cause on external damage. For Samsung, the world's largest phone maker, the recall was one heck of a black eye.

Samsung's eight-point battery check.

Alfred Ng/CNET

"One day when I was driving, the [Note 7] started smoking, and I threw it out my window," said Matt Gioia, a 31-year-old who said he would not go back to Samsung because of the incident and the lack of customer service follow-up.

For the many smaller, lesser-known companies out there, the heat from a similar battery controversy could be fatal. And if it can happen to a company as powerful as Samsung, it can happen to anyone.

"I'm 100 percent convinced that current battery tests would have not detected these failures," said Gerbrand Ceder, a professor of materials science and engineering for the University of California at Berkeley, one of the independent experts Samsung appointed to advise it on batteries.

That's not to say these others aren't quietly looking into the issue.

"I'm sure the engineers will be looking at the info Samsung made public," said a spokesman for a high-profile phone maker who asked not to be identified. "I'm sure every [phone maker] will be doing the same."

Just don't hold your breath for any public declarations of support for the Samsung way.

A Samsung spokesman said the company began speaking with industry organizations in January and plans to continue sharing its findings from its battery research with the industry.

Hot-button issue

LG, Samsung's cross-town rival, has been the most vocal player.

"We would rather learn from it, rather than enjoy it as competitors," LG Chief Technology Officer Skott Ahn said in an interview in January.

For instance, LG emphasized a battery-puncture test that its newly unveiled G6 underwent. A company spokesman followed up and said that the company has been doing its own version of Samsung's eight-point check since before the Note 7 incident.

lg-battery-penetration-test-02.jpg

LG has its own battery puncture test.

LG


Motorola, meanwhile, tests its batteries in its own labs and gets certification from third-party labs. "The internal Motorola testing provides an additional level beyond industry standards," said a company spokeswoman, adding that it conducts the same tests as Samsung. "We're glad to see other manufacturers also using these best practices."

Apple and Huawei didn't respond to a request for comment.

Another phone maker said it took cues from wireless carriers, which score each vendor based on their performance during quality checks, according to an executive there who asked not to be named.

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The carriers themselves were hesitant to talk about Samsung and safety in the same sentence.

"We are going to ask handset makers to validate that all the testing they do is in compliance with all safety standards." AT&T Chief Technology Officer John Donovan said in an interview in February. "Absolutely we're sensitive, given the recent issues."

A 'massive' problem

It's easy to understand why companies may be gun-shy when talking about this issue. After all, exploding phones could prove harmful to consumers -- a nightmare scenario. Another issue is the sheer amount of resources it would take to guarantee the safety of products.

When Samsung worked to figure out the cause behind the Note 7 fires, it had 700 engineers working at four new facilities it built in South Korea, Vietnam and China. They tested more than 200,000 phone units and over 30,000 standalone batteries.

Samsung built four facilities and tested 200,000 Note 7 phones and 30,000 standalone batteries to figure out what went wrong.

Samsung

With more than 70,000 engineers around the world, Samsung has manpower to spare.

The same can't be said for others in the industry.

The wireless carriers, for instance, receive only a small number of units for testing. The only way they would've caught the Note 7 problem was if they all tested hundreds of thousands of devices, which isn't economically feasible, according to a spokesman from one carrier.

The problem of scale is something everyone has to wrestle with. For instance, what happens if you test 100,000 phones and one catches on fire?

"Consumers like to hear zero failure rate," Ceder said. "But real engineers talk about acceptable failure rate. Nobody wants to hear that."

The other issue is the lack of an agreed-upon standard. While Samsung says its process exceeds industry practices, other handset makers say those aren't clearly defined because everyone plays things close to the vest.

Beyond the carriers, some look to the CTIA, the trade group for the US wireless industry, to set guidelines on testing.

"Consumer safety is of the highest importance to CTIA and its members," the group said in a statement. "That's why, under industry-developed test plans, device makers conduct battery certification testing of their devices in labs that meet CTIA requirements."

The CTIA also said it continually reviews and adapts its test plans, but didn't offer more specifics.

A bit of progress?

One of the conclusions Samsung came to after its Note 7 investigation was that relying on the tests conducted by its battery suppliers wasn't enough -- it needed to have its own checks in place. If nothing else, that may inspire other vendors to have discussions with their own suppliers.

"Part of [Samsung's] intention was to give a wakeup call to all colleagues in this field," said Kevin White, a scientist at Exponent, one of the independent firms hired by Samsung to conduct its own investigation into the Note 7.

The incident spurred a lot of discussion at LG, with battery safety rising to the top of the priority list after the Samsung recalls, according to a person familiar with the company's thinking.

D.J. Koh, Samsung's mobile chief, called the Note 7 incident a "painful crisis."

Samsung

Steve Cistulli, head of the North American business for TCL, which makes Alcatel and BlackBerry phones, said the company looked at its supplier processes when Samsung's incident happened. But it felt comfortable that proper safety measures were in place.

Overall, there needs to be more transparency in the supply chain on the processes in place, said Holger Kunz, an electrical engineer for TUV Rheinland, another firm that conducted an investigation into the Note 7 and that certifies electronics. He said said device makers shouldn't just trust their suppliers' tests.

"A consumer automatically thinks it's the full responsibility of a phone manufacturer," Kunz said. "But a mobile phone manufacturer also expects its battery manufacturer is making good batteries."

Experts hope more companies adopt the eight-point test. But it comes down to how much appetite for risk each vendor can tolerate -- and how deep its pockets are.

Samsung is lucky that its phones didn't cause a more serious incident. It also still has its share of hardcore fans. Joseph Jugos, for instance, is a Note 7 user who ended up downgrading to a Note 5 while he waits for the next iteration of the phone. The next company to deal with exploding batteries may not be so fortunate, putting consumers in jeopardy of bodily harm -- or worse.

"If you're a phone maker, you should be thinking this could happen to me too," Ceder said. "Any other attitude would be really callous, really dangerous."

CNET's Alfred Ng contributed to this report.

Updated at 6:49 a.m. PT and on March 27 at 12:06 p.m. PT: To include a response from Samsung and additional comment from LG.

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