Safer Connected Consumer Products



Kathy Hunt

We live in the age of Industry 4.0 or the fourth industrial revolution, an era in which factories and their products have become increasingly automated, self-monitoring, and computerized. 

One driver of this revolution is the Internet of Things (IoT). The IoT refers to everyday devices that can collect, transmit, and receive information through the internet. Thanks to extensive wireless networks and inexpensive processors, our phones, tablets, and speakers, as well as home appliances, children’s toys, and security systems, can become “smart” devices. That is, they can operate autonomously and connect with other electronic devices to exchange data via the internet. These devices belong to the IoT, and they are known as “connected products.”

Gartner Inc. projects that this year, more than 20.4 billion connected devices will be in use worldwide. In 2017, this number was 8 billion. According to the Pew Research Center, in 2017, the average U.S. household possessed five of these smart devices, and 20% of Americans had at least 10 in their homes. The ability of these products to increase personal productivity, simplify tasks, and save time for consumers contribute to their escalating presence in our lives. 

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However, as the popularity of these devices has grown, issues regarding security and safety have also expanded. At the forefront of addressing these issues is the subcommittee on connected products (F15.75). Part of the consumer products committee (F15), the 50-plus-member technical subcommittee has drafted a guide for ensuring the safety of connected consumer products (WK71003). 

According to Don Mays, chief safety and quality officer at Samsung Electronics and subcommittee chair, and Travis Norton, technical director at Bureau Veritas and a subcommittee member, the standard will guide connected consumer product manufacturers as well as those planning to make these devices in the future. The standard should also help ensure the safety of a device as it relates to its connected functionality, which relates to the device’s ability to interface with a network, such as the internet, and perform additional functions for the consumer. An example would be a washer and dryer that can be started remotely and can alert the consumer when a laundry cycle is finished. 

Connected Product Safety 

The F15.75 subcommittee focuses on hazard assessment for connected products, not on data privacy or specific cybersecurity threats. Product safety may be a concern for a device after its software is updated – Norton illustrates the problem with the example of a connected carbon dioxide or smoke detector. “We have seen where a software update went out to a device, and the product went into standby mode,” he says. “This was a problem because the consumer would not be aware the device was no longer performing its safety monitoring function.”  

Because consumers may be unaware of a software update, suppliers need to guard against inadvertent impacts to safety.

The Internet of Things (IOT) has made it possible to manage every facet of your home from a smart device.

Safety issues can also arise through simple operator error. Consider a smart oven that is controlled through a phone app. Forgetting that he left a dish towel on top of the stove, the owner remotely turns on the stovetop. With that action, the owner has unwittingly created a hazard. The towel could catch fire without anyone’s knowledge and without anyone at home to extinguish the blaze. 

Along with smart appliances and connected home automation devices, wearables also present safety threats. Wearables — clothing and accessories embedded with sensors that track the wearer’s movements and biometrics and send the collected data to a smart device — also fall under the connected products subcommittee. Wearables range from activity and fitness trackers, smart watches, and Bluetooth ear buds to footwear with embedded GPS systems, running clothes that monitor performance, and swimsuits with UV sensors alerting wearers when to apply sunscreen. And while the benefits can be many, a malfunctioning wearable can cause physical injuries such as burns or even electrocutions.  

(As of now, medical and industrial connected devices such as exosuits and exoskeletons are not covered by the subcommittee but by another committee. For more about these devices and their standards, see sidebar, Exosuits and Exoskeletons.)

Meeting the Challenges 

Because many connected consumer products already have their own safety standards in place, F15.75’s proposed guide will work in conjunction with these requirements. The standard will serve as a summary of best practices for manufacturers and help them avoid any pitfalls. 

The subcommittee has clear objectives for the proposed guide, but there are still challenges they plan to address. For example, many connected consumer products do not have safety standards, but the guide is intended to be used with existing standards. Historically, connected products that have little or no risk of injuring consumers, such as motion sensors and cameras, have not needed safety standards. Wearables, the most popular of all connected consumer products, also do not currently have their own product-specific safety standards, although the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) is currently looking at these products, Norton said. The subcommittee sees these needs as opportunities to develop standards in these areas.

Complications also arise when security threats overlap with or impact safety. 

“It’s important to know where to draw the line on the scope. It’s very easy to get ‘scope creep,’” Mays said. “Data privacy and security are out of our discussion except in the case where a security breach could result in a maliciously introduced product-safety hazard. Take electronic scooters as an example. Someone was able to demonstrate that certain scooters could be hacked using Bluetooth and then remotely accelerated and braked while in use. Manufacturers need to be aware of these combined security and safety hazards.” 

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The sheer number and types of connected products can likewise muddle efforts. It can be difficult to craft a guide applying to every connected consumer product. One cannot predict every single glitch. 

“It’s hard to anticipate everything. As time goes on, we’re undoubtedly going to uncover vulnerabilities that the subcommittee hadn’t thought of. Real-life examples will teach us. The standard will have to be updated as new information comes to light,” Mays said.

Product testing may also need to be rethought or expanded. Norton pointed out that connected devices should be tested in all the modes through which they operate, i.e., an app, a timer, voice recognition, motion sensor, and more. All operational modes should comply with safety standards. 

Another Tool in the Box

Ultimately, in drafting the new guide for ensuring the safety of connected consumer products, the subcommittee is aiding manufacturers, regulators, businesses, and consumers.

“Users should think about using this alongside applicable safety assessments and testing. It’s an additional step that suggests that safety testing should now include an evaluation of the product using the range of connected features provided to the consumer,” Norton said.

According to Norton, such features could include software updates from suppliers. The features may also entail controlling the device from an application on a user’s phone with a voice-controlled smart hub, or through programming functions.

The draft standard will likely go to balloting in the near future with the hope that it will become a standard in late 2020. The standard will give manufacturers of connected consumer products another valuable tool in their toolboxes. 

The subcommittee on connected products (F15.75) welcomes new members. For information about becoming involved or dates of future meetings, please contact staff manager Molly Lynyak (mlynyak@astm.org). 

Kathy Hunt is a U.S. East Coast-based journalist and author.

May/June
2020
Industry Sectors: 
Consumer Products