Why Apple products can’t handle vibration

15-09-2021 | By Sam Brown

Recently, Apple announced that users should be careful when using their iPhones in areas of intense vibration, such as cars and bikes. What causes Apple products to fail under vibration, why should customers be more careful when using devices, and what does this teach about the difference between automotive-grade parts and regular commercial parts?

Apple warns users not to use their phones in areas of high vibration

The past few years have seen some Apple customers recognise failures in their devices after riding bikes or driving vehicles. However, only recently, Apple published a warning to users that vibrations from high-powered engines can damage iPhone devices.

The announcement from Apple specifically mentions how vibrations can damage the sensitive mechanisms found on the iPhone camera. As the iPhone is a handheld device, taking clear images can be challenging as even the slightest movement can result in image blur. To solve this, the iPhone integrates optical image stabilisation and closed-loop autofocus to produce sharp, clear images even under motion.

The iPhone also uses a gyroscope with magnetic sensors to aid in image stabilisation to understand how the camera is moving in its environment to provide the best result. However, these parts are all susceptible to damage when vibrated harshly, and it is this vulnerability that damages the iPhone when exposed to vibration from engines.

Apple products are not automotive-grade, and consumers need to know this

Many consumers would think that such a vulnerability is an example of bad workmanship or poor design. Still, the truth is that most consumers do not understand what automotive-grade parts are. It is perfectly normal to mount a smartphone holder onto the dashboard of a car and then use the smartphone as a satnav. However, consumers need to recognise that the smartphone is not actually designed for use in automotive environments (including in the dashboard).

Generally speaking, most consumer devices on the market are designed for use in homes and other calm environments. This means that they do not expect high variations in temperature, sudden vibration, shock, or corrosive compounds. Automotive-grade parts, however, expect to see environmental conditions found in and around vehicles, including high temperatures, sudden shock, large vibrations, and potentially harmful atmospheres.

As such, it is not surprising when consumers report devices being used in harsh environments of failing. However, is it the responsibility of the manufacturer to tell customers that devices are not guaranteed to work inside of a car?

Automotive-grade vs Commercial

When designing electronics for commercial use, it is almost impossible to predict every use case scenario. In the iPhone example, testing in cars would have most likely worked due to the large amounts of shock and vibration absorbent that modern vehicles have. Furthermore, it is improbable that the designers of the iPhone tested their device on high-performance motorcycles either because of the fringe nature of the environment or the fact that the iPhone is not designed with automotive parts.

While designers could solve such issues by using only automotive-grade parts in their design, this is a very impractical design method for multiple reasons. For one, automotive-graded parts can be much more expensive than their commercial variants (as they require more testing, verification, and different construction methods). Another reason is that not all parts are available in automotive grades (as is probably the case with the iPhone).

Engineers can protect their devices from customer complaints by clearly describing what environments their devices can operate at (temperature range, water levels, etc.). Users who breach these requirements will be voided of any warranty. However, it is arguably better for engineers to learn how other products have failed, recognise how consumers use their devices, and design products with better testing methods to catch issues before they become a problem.

By Sam Brown