South Korean government to investigate what's causing the Note 7 fires

top tech stories 01 20 2017 samsung corp head
Flickr/Samsung
Samsung can’t catch a break. Ever since reports emerged of the Seoul, South Korea-based firm’s Note 7 smartphone spontaneously catching fire, the company has been dogged by government-mandated recalls, public transportation bans, lawsuits, and a subsequent tidal wave of negative publicity. The controversy came to a head last week with Samsung’s decision to permanently halt production of the Note 7, but not everyone is satisfied. According to South Korea’s Yonhap news agency, both Samsung and the South Korean government have launched investigations in an effort to suss out the cause of the Note 7’s explosive proclivities.

Yonhap reports that the state-run Korea Testing Laboratory (KTL) will use a combination of technologies including X-ray and computerized tomography in its analysis. “We have handed over … phones (that caught fire) to KTL and will cooperate with their investigation, but we can’t just sit and wait for its result,” a Samsung Electronics spokesperson told Yonhap News. “We have been mobilizing all possible resources to find the exact cause of the problems as soon as possible.”

Samsung’s earlier investigations encountered roadblocks. The company’s engineers initially believed the problem centered on the Note 7’s lithium-ion battery, supplied in large part by the company’s eponymous Samsung SDI subsidiary. Samsung subsequently tasked Hong Kong-based Amperex Technology, which previously supplied batteries for Note 7 phones sold in China, with producing batteries for refurbished Note 7 devices. But the change didn’t have the intended effect: several phones designated “safe” caught fire, including one aboard a Southwest Airlines flight.

In an alarming exposé last week, The New York Times suggested that, despite weeks of investigation by “hundreds” of the company’s hardware specialists, Samsung was unable to diagnose the cause of Note 7 fires. Reportedly complicating matters was the flaw’s inconsistency: of the hundreds of early Note 7 units the company provided to beta testers ahead of the smartphone’s global launch in August, none exhibited the problems experienced by today’s units.

Some employees blamed the investigation’s failure on Samsung’s working conditions. One who spoke to the New York Times called the firm’s environment “militaristic,” with product decisions made by management and higher-ups who “[do] not necessarily understand how [the] technologies actually [work].” Another pointed a finger at the firm’s chilling means of forestalling lawsuits: employees involved in testing faulty Note 7 devices were instructed to keep discussion “offline.”

The Samsung’s inability to pinpoint the cause of Note 7 fires motivated its decision in September to recall all of the 2.5 million models with SDI batteries, and, more recently, to effect a broader recall of all Note 7 devices sold thus far. Significantly, the most recent recall includes the almost 200,000 Note 7 devices sold in China — a market excluded from the first round of recalls. “For the benefit of consumers’ safety, we stopped sales and exchanges of the Galaxy Note 7 and have consequently decided to stop production,” a spokesperson told The New York Times.

To date, the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission reports that more than 92 Note 7 units have overheated and caught fire. Around 26 have caused burns, and more than 50 have caused property damage.

Samsung chief Koh Dong-jin said on Wednesday that he “would at any cost find the exact cause (of the faulty Galaxy Note 7) to restore trust of consumers so that they can use Samsung products without any safety concerns.”

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