What Will Be the Consumer Product Safety Hazards of the Future?

Two years ago, hoverboards – the two-wheeled, motorized self-balancing toy/transportation device powered by a battery pack – came onto the market and took off. They were everywhere; celebrities rode them, commercials blanketed the airwaves, and everyone from small children to young adults sought to buy these in-demand products.

This past summer, though, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CSPC) issued a sweeping recall of just over 500,000 hoverboards and self-balancing scooters produced by 10 manufacturers, including well-known brands like Razor and Swagway, the single-largest producer of hoverboards in the U.S.

The cause? An extensive investigation uncovered at least 99 separate incidents in which property damage and burn injuries were caused by defective battery packs that would overheat, catch fire, and/or explode.

One incident that allegedly resulted from a defective hoverboard involved a disastrous fire that consumed a family’s home in Nashville, resulting in catastrophic loss of property for the family of six. Just prior to that incident, another lawsuit was filed in Louisiana for the same thing: a house fire allegedly caused by a defective hoverboard.

New York City banned hoverboards from its sidewalks. Major airlines stopped allowing them on their planes. Amazon temporarily stopped selling them and issued refunds to anyone who had bought one from the online retailer.

It’s clear that these products should’ve been made better, or regulated more, or inspected and verified for safety. Unfortunately, as is frequently the case with new products, people simply didn’t predict that defective batteries would one day cause fires and pose damage to consumers. Experts can’t always forecast what will and won’t pose a danger before a product hits the market. In fact, that rarely happens; the best they can do is approve a product based on what they know today.

That raises the question: what will be the consumer safety hazard of the future?

Experts have attempted to predict where future problems might emerge. Elliot Kaye, Chairman of the CSPC, thinks there is one group of products that could provide fodder for future recalls: products created from emerging technologies.

How Emerging Technologies Create New Hazards

The Law of Accelerated Returns more or less states that technology advances exponentially. More technological progress has been made over the past decade than was made in virtually the entire first half of the 20th Century.

That means emerging technologies – like hoverboards – are occurring faster than our ability to predict what impact they’ll have on society.

Examples of emerging technologies that could pose a threat to consumer safety include:

  • 3D printing
  • The “Internet of Things,” in which everyday appliances and electronics are connected to the Internet
  • Wearable electronics
  • Automation (such as semi-automated and fully-automated “driverless” cars)

Each has causes for concern. With 3D printing, for example, people can create an endless assortment of products from their own homes that completely bypass regulatory procedures and can’t be recalled themselves. There’s nothing stopping someone from creating something with a 3D printer that can injure someone either if/when it fails, or just through normal use.

The “Internet of Things” trend poses entirely new threats that the CSPC hasn’t faced before, such as the threat of hacking devices that are connected to the Internet and using them to potentially harm consumers – a scenario the FBI warned against last year.

With wearable electronics, it’s easy to imagine how the same technological flaws seen with the Galaxy Note 7 could be present in the smart watches, heart rate monitors, and other gadgets that we wear on our bodies with increasing frequency. In 2014, for example, Fitbitrecalled their Force wristbands because they reportedly caused significant skin irritation and even permanent scarring for some wearers. There are other safety concernsinvolving potentially-harmful radiation from electronics worn closely around our heads and vital organs (experts still aren’t sure if mobile phone radiation has harmful long-term effects).

Finally, automation – most notably in the form of automated vehicles – can pose a threat because placing dangerous activities completely in the hands of technology driven by software creates a risk that technical failure could result in catastrophe. Driverless cars are one example of this danger. In May of this year, a Tesla driven on autopilot crashed and killed its occupant because the car’s computers failed to differentiate between the sky and the white side of an eighteen-wheeler in the next lane.

That’s not to say that automated technology won’t progress to the point where dangers are mitigated, but like with any form of technology, they can’t be completely eliminated. The sheer scale of the potential consequences for failure – one can picture massive, multi-car pileups on an interstate due to a computer glitch in just one vehicle – make automation even more dangerous a proposition than other forms of emerging technology.

Here’s the main concern: it took an enormous amount of time, money, and human casualties to get automobile safety standards to where they are today from where they were when cars first hit the road. Society can’t afford to fight that mammoth battle each time a new technology emerges. Government, private industry, and consumers need to work together to create an infrastructure by which consumer safety hazards can be identified before they turn into tragedies – and to ensure safety is at the forefront of design with any new product that is brought to market.

Until then, product recalls like the one targeting hoverboards will continue to happen. Each product recall notice you see was caused by someone, somewhere, becoming injured or killed by that product. It’s in our best interests as a society to figure out how to solve safety problems before recall notices are necessary.

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