Product Liability Claims: What Does The Future Hold? – Part III

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Product Liability Claims:    What Does The Future Hold? – Part III

In case you missed last week’s Product Liability Claims’s: What Does The Future Hold? – Part I and Part II, you can check it out here and here.

The Future Future

a.   Send In The Drones 

Drones are the classic example of how wartime research and development drive commercial and consumer development.   War accelerates the R & D, and the resulting products, de-weaponized of course, end up in the consumer market.  With advent of newer technology and better GPS systems, drones will be everywhere.

i.  Air.   Flying drones are now no longer just for hunting terrorists.   They will appear in most facets of our life.  They will be small and large.   Drones will deliver essentials like pizza, books, and beer.[1]  There will be UPS drones and FedEx drones.  Amazon will send you products, and pick up your returns.[2]  Larger drones will lift and remove wrecked cars from accident scenes.   Ambulance heli-drones, possibly occupied by EMTs, will land near that accident and help remove injured people.   They will deliver tickets to you as their cameras catch you speeding down the road.   Rather, it is more likely that you will get the ticket in your in-car email before you get home.   Drones will spray crops.   They will inspect large, hard to reach structures (as they are doing now at oil refineries).   They will perform surveillance duties.   They will be used for scientific and consumer purposes.[3]   And, as with anything that flies, they will fail and drop out of the sky, or fail and deliver something heavy on top of someone or some thing.   And so on.

              ii.  Sea.   Drones will go to sea too.   Ships are expected to be drone-ized in the future.[4]   Crewless ships will greatly reduce expenses and increase net profits.   But, they too will fail, and hit bridges, wharves, and people.   Shipments will be lost or damaged.

             iii.  Land.   Any car that is self-driving might likewise be called a land drone.   But aside from cars, there will be cargo trucks, buses, and so on.  The military is, again, already testing an “Autonomous Mobility Appliqué System (AMAS) program, and [have seen driverless] vehicles successfully navigate an urban-style route, complete with obstacles a real-world convoy might encounter (humans, junctions etc.).”[5]  Basically, anything that can move and carry people and/or cargo will one day be a drone.   And be piloted by someone remotely or by automated GPS systems.

b.  Nanotech.   Nanotechnology (“nanotech”) is the manipulation of matter on an atomicmolecular, and supramolecular scale. The earliest, widespread description of nanotechnology referred to the particular technological goal of precisely manipulating atoms and molecules for fabrication of macroscale products, also now referred to as molecular nanotechnology. A more generalized description of nanotechnology was subsequently established by the National Nanotechnology Initiative, which defines nanotechnology as the manipulation of matter with at least one dimension sized from 1 to 100 nanometers. This definition reflects the fact that quantum mechanical effects are important at this quantum-realm scale, and so the definition shifted from a particular technological goal to a research category inclusive of all types of research and technologies that deal with the special properties of matter that occur below the given size threshold.  . . .   Because of the variety of potential applications (including industrial and military), governments have invested billions of dollars in nanotechnology research. Through its National Nanotechnology Initiative, the USA has invested 3.7 billion dollars. The European Union has invested 1.2 billion and Japan 750 million dollars.

As of 2008, it was estimated that nanotechnology was already in use in over 800 manufactured products.   New products appear in the market at about 3 to 4 a week.  Nanotech helps make sunscreens, cosmetics, surface coatings, certain tapes, food additives, packing, disinfectants, paints, fuel catalysts, sports equipment, clothing that cools, lighter cars, increased computer memory, and medical applications.  Some think future nanotech might be used to attack cancers.  In any event, a nano-machine is still a machine, and the same three tenets (manufacture, design, and warnings) are likely to apply to them in the future as they gain more widespread use, as they are expected to do.   And along with that will come the expected product failures and injuries.

c.  3D Printing.   Three dimensional printing (“3D printing”) is another new manufacturing technology that is taking off dramatically and will expand.   It will change how many things and made, and who makes them.   Consumers will, in some instances, make the product that ends up hurting them.  Wikipedia describes 3D printing thus:

3D printing or Additive manufacturing is a process of making a three-dimensional solid object of virtually any shape from a digital model.   3D printing is achieved using an additive process, where successive layers of material are laid down in different shapes.   3D printing is also considered distinct from traditional machining techniques, which mostly rely on the removal of material by methods such as cutting or drilling (subtractive processes). The printers are essentially computer-controlled robots.   They are already in use, and have been used to “print” guns, fighter jet components, prosthetic arms, architectural models, sports cleats, concept cars, wheelchair ramps, skin and bones for grafting, toys, horseshoes, windpipes, clothes, and various plastic and chocolate items. “Three-dimensional printing makes it as cheap to create single items as it is to produce thousands and thus undermines economies of scale.  It may have as profound an impact on the world as the coming of the factory did….  Just as nobody could have predicted the impact of the steam engine in 1750—or the printing press in 1450, or the transistor in 1950—it is impossible to foresee the long-term impact of 3D printing.  But the technology is coming, and it is likely to disrupt every field it touches.”   And the three tenets will apply there too, but there may be future legal questions about who the actual manufacturer of a “product” is.   Certainty, there will be claims against the printer companies and the companies that supply the commercial ingredients for the printed item, especially when the item fails and causes injury.

d.  Self-Driving Cars.   Given all the sensor technology and the active safety feature research and drone advances, it is no wonder that we expect self-driving cars by 2025.   Google is working on one now, and its efforts have been well documented. The cars work by “stacking layers of data collected from its spinning, rooftop-mounted lasers, a front-facing camera, highly sensitive GPS, radar, and sensors to form a living, breathing map of the territory, with which the onboard computer can define and navigate a safe route.” Right now, a driver must sit in the driver’s seat, right next to a large “kill switch,” which would let the driver take control over the car.   Later, however, it is anticipated that the cars will be completely autonomous, and passengers, especially disabled or elderly or blind, will be able to sit in rear or side seats.   Obviously, a more complex car will require more complex technology and manufacturing processes, and those can and will all go bad at some point or another, in both traditional and more complex ways.   This new “car” also raises a few interesting questions:   Who gets the speeding ticket?  And who gets sued when the car crashes and hurts a third-party?  Will run of the mill car crashes become products liability cases?   Who ran the red-light?–the car or the back seat passenger who was reading a book or on the phone?

e.  Connected Vehicle Technology (“CVT”).  “Connected vehicle systems are based on Dedicated Short Range Communications (DRSC)—a technology similar to Wi-Fi—which is fast, secure, reliable, and until to be vulnerable to interference.”   CVT allows cars to talk to one another to avoid collisions, and alert drivers about merging cars, cars in the blind side, or sudden turns or braking by a nearby by car.  It could one day alert motorist to nearby hazards, bad road conditions, or dangerous curves.   The cars could also “talk” to road infrastructure, such as tolls, school zones, traffic signals, and so on.

f.  Genetically Modified Organisms (“GMOs”).   A GMO is an organism whose genetic material has been altered using genetic engineering techniques. Organisms that have been genetically modified include micro-organisms such as bacteria and yeast, insects, plants, fish, and mammals. GMOs are the source of genetically modified foods, and are also widely used in scientific research and to produce goods other than food. The term GMO is very close to the technical legal term, ‘living modified organism’ defined in the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, which regulates international trade in living GMOs (specifically, “any living organism that possesses a novel combination of genetic material obtained through the use of modern biotechnology”). And there is great controversy about it.  “Genetic manipulation is different and so far fraught with danger.  It works by forcibly inserting a single gene from a species’ DNA into another unnaturally.” One researcher puts it this way: “A pig can mate with a pig and a tomato can mate with a tomato.  But there is no way that a pig can mate with a tomato and vice versa.”  The process transfers genes across natural barriers that “separated species over millions of years of evolution” and managed to work. The biotech industry now wants us to believe it can do nature one better, and that genetic engineering is just an extension or superior alternative to natural breeding.

Some researchers are already seeing that animals fed GMO foods  showed “showed stunted growth, impaired immune systems, bleeding stomachs, abnormal and potentially precancerous cell growth in the intestines, impaired blood cell development, misshaped cell structures in the liver, pancreas and testicles, altered gene expression and cell metabolism, liver and kidney lesions, partially atrophied livers, inflamed kidneys, less developed organs, reduced digestive enzymes, higher blood sugar, inflamed lung tissue, increased death rates and higher offspring mortality as well.”  Farmers could lose whole crops and herds.  That is the short-term potential harm.  The transgene change to animals and to humans could be unforeseen, irrevocable, and catastrophic.  But, GMOs appear here to stay, so it is one area that bears watching and demands expert and unbiased oversight.  Once the genetic genie is out of the bottle, change will be unstoppable.

g.  More Robots:   The Google® Mule.   Google recently bought the rights from DARPA to develop DARPA’s robotic mule.  Although currently slated for military use, expect to see mules or similar robots in use in commercial and/or consumer projects one day.   They will carry heavy loads and objects, equipment, and maybe one day will also carry people as well.

h.  Commercial and Medical Exo-Skeletons.   In the movies Aliens 2 in 1986, Avatar in 2009, and the upcoming Edge of Tomorrow in 2014, future soldiers use advanced exoskeletons to work and fight.  Such suits would be worn and fitted to the user’s body, and allow him or her to lift enormously heavy objects, run and travel rapidly, and fight or work as needed in even the harshest environments.  Military research will again likely drive the exoskeletons into the civilian world, where they will be used in construction and other commercial endeavors.  They may also be used one day to improve the daily lives and mobility of quadriplegics, paraplegics, and multiple amputees, among others.   One can readily imagine sporting events inexorably appearing, with human teams in exo-suits competing in some extreme “sport.”  The suits will no doubt be useful, once made spaceworthy or seaworthy, in space exploration and undersea exploration and commerce.  There will be failures and deaths as these products emerge.

i.  The Flying Car.  And, of course, there is the defining product in future tech, namely, the flying car.   Work is underway to develop them in the next few years.   See  http://www.terrafugia.com/.   Combining so many of the technologies listed above, flying cars are every driver’s daydream.   “Imagine if you could just flip a switch and unshackle yourself from the asphalt!”  But, as the song goes, “Those magnificent men in their flying machines, They go up diddley up-up, they go down diddley down-down!”  So, when the flight switch does not work, call us after you recover.

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1 Comment

  1. […] deadline on creating new rules for vehicles of the future due to the fact they have to determine if “driverless” vehicles are safe. Typically innovation comes before consumer protection or regulation, but in this case, regulators […]

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