"Take the number of vehicles in the field (A), and multiply it by the probable rate of failure (B), then multiply the result by the average out-of-court settlement (C). A times B times C equals X... If X is less than the cost of a recall, we don't do one"
– quote from automotive recall co-ordinator in the film Fight Club
The example above is fiction, but the confusion and lack of transparency surrounding Sony's recent battery cell problems makes it ring true. Familiarity with the IT industry suggests cock-up rather than conspiracy in keeping us in the dark, but that's hardly comforting for Dell and Apple's stranded customers.
Any energy-storage system has risk, from Buncefield depot to the battery in your wristwatch. The question is how much, and where. We don't know the answer with lithium ion technology: while overreaction by regulators on this issue would be counterproductive, there has to be more openness on both the potential risks of Li-ion batteries, and the recall process in technology companies generally. A full 10 days lapsed between Apple's decision to recall 1.8 million laptop batteries on 25 August and Dell's 4.1 million call-back on 15 August. The heated conversations at Apple HQ during that period will certainly never be disclosed but they'd speak volumes about US corporate attitudes to customers and regulators.
The Internet has filled in some of the gaps.. Apple, Sony and Dell may be tight-lipped, but their customers are more than happy to talk to each other. The only problem with this community solution to an information gap is that it can get out of control. Fuelled by a media scrabbling for news in the midst of the silly season, the battery-recall issue runs the risk of being overplayed. This in turn floats the danger of an equal overreaction by overzealous lawmakers eager to capitalise on an issue that they perceive as popular and easily fixed.
What is needed is not more regulation but information and transparency from all the vendors concerned. Consumers need to know in detail what exactly happened with these particular cells, how long the problem has existed for, and most importantly what the companies concerned are doing to ensure it won't happen again. By trying to control and lock this incident down, the tech companies have precipitated the kind of explosive release of energy that has plagued their batteries. And if lawmakers wade in to clear up the mess, it could be all of us who suffer.