Sony plans its own battery recall

Consumer electronics giant is working with product safety agency to figure out "the widest scope" of alert.

A correction was made to this story. Read below for details.

update Sony is planning to announce a massive battery recall of its own, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) confirmed.

The recall, expected this month, will encompass all possibly defective batteries, including those previously announced by manufacturers for specific notebook computers, said Julie Vallese, director of the Office of Public Affairs at the CPSC.

While the CPSC does not anticipate the recall extending beyond computers for this coming announcement, it is possible that batteries may be recalled for other electronic devices down the road. The scope of any investigation can change based on information that is being continuously provided to the agency, said Vallese.

Sony makes lithium ion batteries for an array of electronics devices, including camcorders, portable DVD players and video game consoles. Consumer Reports first reported the potential recall on its blog, noting that the recalls "may go beyond computers, involving other electronic products as well."

"Sony has provided a wealth of technical data to the CPSC involving this tech, and it is omnipresent in a host of portable electronic devices, but as far as we know, from Sony's perspective, there is no initiative planned at this time that goes beyond what has already been communicated with respect to notebook computers," said Sony spokesman Rick Clancy, referring to Sony's official statement released on Thursday concerning a global replacement program for notebook battery packs.

"I think that the real way to look at it is that Sony is working with the CPSC to identify the widest scope of batteries that it may recall. Any recall that the agency will make will be limited to batteries that power notebook computers. We have no anticipation at this time beyond that," Vallese said.

"Sony and the CPSC are currently working together to identify what will be in the recall, the time frame of what was manufactured and sold. We will be trying to issue that as soon as possible," she said.

Richard Shim, a senior analyst with IDC, said: "The big issue is that while there is a small financial impact (to Sony as a company) compared to the perception impact, you have a number of significant brands that the consumer knows very well who were also involved in the recalls. They have basically pointed the problem at Sony by saying they have a poorly manufactured component.

"From a manufacturer standpoint, this gives them a lot of leverage going forward. Sony is going to have to rebuild not just with consumers, but with manufacturers. And the fact of the matter is that a lot of these manufacturers" buy batteries from multiple manufacturers, Shim said.

Previous notebook battery recalls were issued by Dell and Apple Computer in August for specific laptop models containing Sony batteries, after it was discovered that some batteries were overheating or exploding, causing fires even when the machines were turned off. At the time, Sony said the issue was confined to Dell and Apple computers, and the problem was attributed to a potential short circuit caused by tiny shards of metal left over in the battery cells from the manufacturing process.

On Friday, Toshiba announced that it, too, would be recalling 830,000 laptop computer batteries, while Dell increased the amount of laptop battery recalls from 4.1 million to 4.2 million. Lenovo announced a recall of 526,000 laptop batteries on Thursday, after a Lenovo ThinkPad T43 caught fire at the Los Angeles International Airport.

Separately on Monday, Sony and Hewlett-Packard issued a joint statement that said a study of the issue found that "because of HP's PC system configuration, HP notebooks using Sony battery cells are not prone to overheating issues that have recently been observed."

The issue has specifically affected travel, as some . While the laptops may be brought on board, owners must first remove the battery and then use them only with an external power supply.

This may be creating negative feelings among consumers, said Shim, as most airlines do not offer electrical outlets in coach class, making notebooks essentially unusable on planes. Sony needs to have high take-back rates--the number of bad batteries returned for good ones--so the airlines can lift the current bans, Shim said.

"If you can't use your notebook on the planes, that puts a pretty big cramp in (your) day," Shim said. The airlines "have to do what they are doing from a liability standpoint. You don't want to see that evening headline that a plane caught fire because someone's laptop battery overheated. That's a lose-lose for everybody," he said.

Vallese said consumers should keep the situation in perspective. According to the Portable Rechargeable Battery Association, an estimated 2 billion lithium ion cells will be manufactured in 2006. Of those, Vallese said, the actual number of incidents of fire in relation to batteries is few.

"We want consumers to respond because the risk is real, but the risk is low, and that needs to be understood," Vallese said.


Correction: Because of information supplied by the CPSC, this story mischaracterized Consumer Reports' findings on the extent of the potential battery recall. Consumer Reports stands by its report that the recall may extend beyond laptops to other devices. The CPSC now says that it will not be seeking a correction from Consumer Reports.