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CPSC urges better battery safety after Samsung's Note 7 fiasco

The US safety agency says there's no way it could match Samsung's efforts to figure out what went wrong with the Galaxy Note 7.

Samsung took the right steps in figuring out what went wrong with the Galaxy Note 7, the top US safety agency said Tuesday as it called for the rest of the industry to set better safety standards for batteries.

Elliot Kaye, chairman of the US Consumer Product Safety Commission, said in a statement the technology industry needs to "modernize and improve the safety standards for lithium-ion batteries in consumer electronics and also stay ahead of new power sources that will inevitably come along and replace these."

That includes putting more safeguards in place during the design and manufacturing stages to make sure batteries are safe, Kaye said.

The CPSC is working with Samsung to urge the industry to reexamine standards for batteries in smartphones, and this year, the organization's technical staff will "assess the state of high-density battery technology, innovations in the marketplace, gaps in safety standards, and the research and regulatory activities in other countries," he added.

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The Galaxy Note 7, one of Samsung's most high-profile phones, blew up in the company's face last fall, suffering multiple recalls and bans by airlines before flickering out with a final "death update" that essentially bricks any units remaining in the wild. Thousands of diehard Note 7 fans continue to hold onto their devices, but the vast majority of the phones have been exchanged.

The company on Sunday revealed what caused the Note 7 to overheat. The culprits proved to be separate flaws with two different batteries. One was a design flaw that led to the first recall. The second was a manufacturing error introduced after Samsung's second supplier ramped up production to meet demand as the sole Note 7 battery supplier.

Globally, 96 percent of Note 7 buyers have traded in their phones. In the US, the official tally is 97 percent, but Tim Baxter, president of Samsung's US arm, says it's actually closer to 99 percent because more than half of the remaining units are no longer connected to cell networks.

"We are pushing to get to that 100 percent," he said in an interview last week ahead of Samsung's investigation results. Most recalls only result in about 20 percent to 30 percent of devices turned in, he added.

Kaye on Tuesday said Samsung's recall results have been "good."

What do you think of the Note 7 recall? Answer CNET's poll here

The CPSC will will continue to investigate what caused Samsung's popular phone to overheat, Kaye said. But he said that even if the CPSC throws its entire agency into the task, it couldn't measure up to Samsung's efforts.

Samsung built a testing facility in each of the four locations it manufactures its phones: Gumi, South Korea; Hanoi, Vietnam; and Huizhou and Tianjin, China. Together, those sites tested more than 200,000 Note 7 devices with batteries and more than 30,000 batteries on their own. Samsung had more than 700 engineers from its mobile division dedicated to the testing process. (Samsung has more than 70,000 engineers in the broader company, but they're spread across its various divisions.)

By comparison, the CPSC has about 535 employees, a budget of $125 million and oversees more than 10,000 products. Each year it announces about 400 recalls.

"Samsung employed more engineers and staff to work on just this issue than CPSC has employees at our entire agency," Kaye said. "Think about that. One company dedicated more personnel to work on one safety analysis than exists at the one United States Government agency with oversight over almost all consumer product safety issues in the entire country."

Here's the CPSC's full statement:

"Each year, CPSC announces about 400 recalls. And each year, a significant percentage of those recalls result in a frustratingly and dangerously low consumer response rate. Thankfully, the Samsung Note7 recall has been different in this regard. Samsung and the wireless carriers fully delivered on an agreement to carry out a comprehensive recall program and the result is a good one - a 97% (and counting) consumer response rate. Samsung has been accountable in taking steps to drive up the recall response rate and keeps pushing, as they should, for every one of the recalled phones to be returned. The overheating and fire risk with the defective batteries is a serious one, so I urge the remaining Note7 owners who are holding out to do the right thing and get a full refund or a new phone.

Samsung's announcement of the findings of their investigation into the root cause of both Note7 batteries that were recalled is an important step forward. While CPSC staff continues to conduct an independent investigation, let me set reasonable expectations for how it might go: CPSC is a vital health and safety agency, but we have nowhere near the resources and people power that Samsung does. Not even close. In fact, Samsung employed more engineers and staff to work on just this issue than CPSC has employees at our entire agency. Think about that. One company dedicated more personnel to work on one safety analysis than exists at the one United States Government agency with oversight over almost all consumer product safety issues in the entire country. We have great people and will do the absolute best job we can with our investigation, but unless Congress finally treats consumer safety as the priority it should be, we will not be able to match what Samsung has done by building a new facility for this purpose and using hundreds of engineers to test hundreds of thousands of phones and batteries.

As I have said previously, consumers should never have to worry that a battery-powered device might put them, their family or their property at risk. This is why we need to modernize and improve the safety standards for lithium-ion batteries in consumer electronics and also stay ahead of new power sources that will inevitably come along and replace these. Consumers expect more power from a smaller battery that charges faster and discharges more slowly. Companies are under a lot of pressure to meet this performance demand. CPSC and Samsung are working with the wireless industry, battery manufacturers and electrical engineers to take a fresh look at the voluntary standard for lithium-ion batteries in smartphones. Samsung plans to share what they learned from the investigation they conducted, along with Underwriters Laboratories and Exponent, which will benefit the entire industry - and the safety of all consumers.

In the aftermath of massive hoverboard and smartphone battery recalls, we added to the CPSC's 2017 operating plan a project for our technical staff to assess the state of high-density battery technology, innovations in the marketplace, gaps in safety standards, and the research and regulatory activities in other countries. Beyond an excellent recall response rate, we need more good to come out of the Note7 recalls and I believe Samsung agrees. At a minimum, industry needs to learn from this experience and improve consumer safety by putting more safeguards in place during the design and manufacturing stages to ensure that technologies run by lithium-ion batteries deliver their benefits without the serious safety risks."

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