Everywhere You Look is the Government

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I am a mechanical
engineer and receive a number of professional trade publications.
Two recent articles caught my eye. The first was an editorial in
Appliance Design. The second was a feature in article in
Design News. These two articles highlighted how deeply
embedded government intervention is in business decisions to bring
new products to market.

The
article in Appliance Design was by a Michael Petricone
,
the Senior Vice President of Government Affairs for the Consumer
Electronics Association (CEA). The CEA is an industry group that
has training, standard-setting activities, and a government-lobbying
branch. The quote that caught my eye is

We must embrace
the transition to digital television and educate consumers. February
17, 2009, begins a new era in TV (when all TV broadcasts will
digital). We have fought for a hard deadline to provide certainty
and we will continue to rally behind this transition. By providing
education for consumers and retailers, CEA will work to help make
this transition seamless. We are also excited about the enormous
potential for the returned spectrum. It is an opportunity to develop
exciting wireless technologies and capabilities including fast
ubiquitous wireless broadband connectivity.

He is referring
to the enforced transition to digital television. After February
17, 2009 your analog television set will cease to function. Unlike
previous transitions in the electronic industry this one is government
mandated. Similar transitions such as from AM radio to FM radio,
black and white to color television, records to CD’s, or from CP/M
to DOS to Windows operating systems all occurred voluntarily. Consumers
decided the new technology was compelling enough to purchase and
it became a success in the market place. One can also think of examples
where an arguably better technology failed in the market place.
An example here is beta versus VHS tape formats.

The government
has decided for you that you will upgrade by that date and what
the winning products will look like. If you, like me, only watch
television occasionally, and left to your own devices would not
upgrade you no longer have that choice.

I recall reading
in a trade publication some years ago that the decision to mandate
digital television was pushed as a protectionist measure for U.S.
manufacturers. At the time the decision was made U.S. manufacturers
had what was thought to be a permanent lead in the design and manufacture
of high-speed digital chips.

A possibly
unintended consequence of the mandating of digital television broadcasting
is the maintaining of a technology that might die out if left to
the open market. Consider that almost 80% homes now receive television
through either satellite or cable. Conventional over-the-air broadcasting
is a declining portion of the market. In an open market it might
just fade away the same way that telegrams have.

Another more
interesting situation was
recently described in Design News
. An article described
the efforts to bring to market a new technology. Stephen Gass, physicist,
attorney, and inventor developed a table saw that automatically
stops if the blade comes in contact with a part of the body. I can
attest to the value of this as I know several people who have lost
parts of their fingers and hands to table saws. The Design News
web link has a dramatic video of a hot dog being driven into the
path of a spinning saw blade on a table saw equipped with the SawStop
technology. As soon as the hot dog contacts the saw blade, the blade
is retracted leaving only a tiny nick on the hot dog.

The quote
of interest is this:

Acting on
a petition from Gass, engineers at the U.S. Consumer Product Safety
Commission recommended that the government begin a "rulemaking
process" that could result in mandatory safety standards
for table saws. Days later, the agency's commissioners shocked
the power tool industry by concurring with the recommendation.

At this point
you might be outraged. Why is Gass not introducing his product to
the marketplace? Let the consumer decide whether he values his safety
enough to pay extra for this safety feature. This is the point where
this case gets interesting.

The currently
accepted legal doctrine is “saws are sharp, use at your own risk.”
Continuing on in the article we read

Most of
the time, legal cases are dismissed before they get to a jury
because the judge agrees with the saw maker that this is an activity
entered into by adults who have a general knowledge of the propensity
of sharp edges to cut," notes James T. O'Reilly, a professor
of law and product liability expert at the University of Cincinnati
College of Law.

Gass believes
that the "use it at your risk" legal structure steals
the motivation of saw manufacturers to adopt new safety technology.
"What you have here is an economic disconnect," Gass
says. "The power tool companies are not paying for the injuries.
You and I are paying in terms of medical premiums and workers'
comp. If the (power tool) industry had to pay, this technology
would have been on those saws a long time ago”

The accepted
legal doctrine has protected the power tool industry and dissuaded
innovation to enhance safety.

So here we
have an entrenched industry protected by an accepted legal doctrine
and a newcomer trying to muscle his way into the industry with a
U.S. government ruling. Neither side is interested in an open fight
in the marketplace for dominance; they are rather trying to maneuver
to seek legal protection. Who decides?

In a free market,
SawStop would find investors to bring the product to full scale
manufacture and market it. If it is truly cost-effective the cost
savings from avoided accidents would be a compelling reason for
purchase. Insurance companies would start pressuring their insureds,
businesses using table saws, to purchase it.

What we have
seen in these examples is that a good product, desired by consumers,
is not what is now necessary for success. In the case of digital
television, consumers will be forced to upgrade by government mandate
to a product that they may or may not want. In the case of SawStop
the legal maneuvering has just begun. My suspicion is that the outcome
will not be decided on the relative merits of the saws.

October
25, 2006

Joel
Chesser [send him mail]
is a mechanical engineer working for a large government contractor.
He blogs on engineering at jbchesser.blogspot.com.
More importantly he is married and the father of four boys.

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