In-car USB ports are switching to a new standard — but not everyone is all-in yet

Automakers are taking divergent paths, at least for now, on converting to USB-C.

Some, including Toyota, Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Volkswagen, are all-in, switching exclusively to the new standard as each of their model lines comes up for an interior freshening or redesign. Others, including Ford, General Motors and Stellantis, have hedged their technological bets, offering both USB-A and USB-C ports in their vehicles.

At BMW, all new launches from the 2021 iX forward offer USB-C exclusively, a spokesperson told Automotive News, while Mini vehicles offer both USB-A and USB-C, depending on the level of equipment and trim, and will transition to all USB-C. The German automaker cited compatibility with “an increasing number of devices,” ease of connectivity, and higher rates of data transfer and charging as the reasons behind the switch.

At Toyota, the decision to transition to exclusively USB-C occurred in 2019 after deep analysis of where the consumer electronics market was heading, said Hal Eubanks, manager of cross carline advanced technology for Toyota Motor North America. Eubanks’ portfolio includes automated driving and multimedia, including how Toyota customers plug into their cars.

He said internal and external analysis determined that by “the end of 2021, USB-C, in terms of the Apple iPhone, would represent 90.4 percent of users, and by the end of 2022, it would be over 99 percent,” with even deeper penetration among Android users. Still, Eubanks said, “it was not necessarily an easy decision to transition 100 percent to USB-C from USB-A because even that small percentage of people, they matter to us. But at the end of the day, it’s just that the percentage of smartphones that were going to be on USB-C by this time was just overwhelming.”

Moving to USB-C had some distinct advantages for Toyota, Eubanks said, including faster charging times using a vehicle’s nondata, charge-only ports. Most USB-A ports are limited to 7.5 watts, while today’s USB-C ports offer 15-watt charging and higher. For new Toyota and Lexus vehicles — starting with the 2024 Toyota Tacoma this year — the automaker will transition to 45-watt charging. That’s more power than current iPhones or Android phones are capable of receiving, but it “future-proofs” Toyota’s customers, Eubanks said.

The transition also saved the Japanese automaker money, Eubanks said. “I can’t go into details on this, but we have reduced the price of each of our USB ports as they have gone from USB-A to USB-C. It’s not that they were particularly expensive per port to start with, but they have gone down dramatically percentagewise in price from what they were.”

Automakers likely kept the USB-A ports in their vehicles for “backward compatibility,” said Sam Abuelsamid, principal analyst for Guidehouse Insights. “People have a lot of cables around that they’ve gathered over the years. If you’ve got some USB-A cables, you may want to keep using them for a while.”

But he said even the USB-A holdouts will eventually convert to USB-C exclusively. “With the next generation of models, they’ll likely move to just the USB-Cs.”

Ford is using both kinds of ports “to facilitate the transition that many of our customers are going through as they update their electronic devices to the latest technology,” said spokesperson Alan Hall.

Marvin Lewis, an engineer at GM, said the company began the transition to exclusively USB-C with the Cadillac Lyriq, because the USB-A “will not be able to keep up with the future devices.” He said other vehicles would follow as they were freshened or redesigned.

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