Kurt and I were talking the other day about the American Inventor series and how we had hoped that it was going to a bit more of a “how to” or a bit more educational for inventors or at minimum illustrate the types of issues inventors should be looking at when bringing their inventions to market. The reality is that getting a working prototype is merely the beginning – there are issues of intellectual property rights (most likely patent, and trademark), there are market and pricing issues and there are other challenges such as government and/or other sanctioning body regulation. The last issue is the one that I think ultimately dooms one of the final 4 contestants and is a point that has not been brought up on the show.
If you have watched the show, you undoubtedly are familiar with Janusz Liberkowski. His invention is the Spherical Child Safety seat and was inspired by the tragic death of his daughter some 7 years ago. The invention is a personal favorite of Kurt’s and I personally think its pretty cool too – the physics behind it make sense. However, even if he wins, I do not believe that the product will ever make it to market. Why, you may ask? Quite simply it comes down to government regulation.
Automobiles safety systems and child systems in particular are regulated by a huge body of federal and state regulations. 49 CFR 571 governs child safety seats and every state has its own laws concerning the placement and use of child safety seats. The one that jumped out at me first is that the car seat positions the infant in a forward facing manner. If we take Colorado as an example, the use of child safety seats is governed by CRS 42-4-236, which states in part “if a child is less than 1 year and weighs less than 20 pounds, the child shall be properly restrained in a rear facing
child restraint system.” The issue here is that Janusz’s car seat has the infant facing forward. Additionally, all of the tests that they conducted concerning the safety of the seat were conducted with the infant facing forward. I assume that the laws of the other 49 states mirror the same conventional wisdom. Mr. Janusz is in the situation that his design, while it may actually be safer than the other products on the market may actually be illegal to sell and use because the states have all codified their own laws requiring an infant to be rear facing. Therefore, he is not only going to have to persuade the public to change their views on child safety, but his is most likely going to have to change 50 state laws and potentially federal government regulations for his product to go to market and be legally used by consumers.
This situation reminded me of a popular science article I read a while back. I was able to find the article from 2002 concerning a radical new style of car seat that was designed to work in the front seat of a car equipped with air bags. The seat was designed by Xportation Safety Concepts, Inc., which also happened to be a Colorado corporation. The company’s rationale was that studies had shown that locating the infant seat in the back seat was distracting to drivers, which may actually increase the risk of an accident. Therefore, they designed a rear facing car seat that will actually work with airbags. Immediately, the product received both support and opposition concerning the concept. Some of the people who didn’t want the laws and regulations changed stated that we have been telling people that kids need to go into the back seat for so long that they didn’t now want to make exceptions to that and possibly send a “mixed message”. This shows the resistance in this area to new or revolutionary product ideas or designs. Xportation petitioned the Department of Transportation to amend the air bag warning requirements, however the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, denied the request. Sadly it seems from the brief amount of research I did, that Xportation has faded into the sunset. Their Colorado corporate filing have lapsed, their web site is gone and I could not find a reference to them on the web any later than 2003. If anybody knows anything else about the company please let me know and I will update the article. Regardless, it is an illustration of how an invention could be revolutionary and potentially beneficial to society, but it never sees the light of day due to a variety of reasons – government red tape being one of them.
If Mr. Janusz does win the competition, he will either need to change the invention to meet current laws and safety standards, if that is even possible, or embark on a nation-wide crusade to change federal law and the laws of all 50 states. Given his deep personal commitment to the design, he may view it as the perfect way to spend his $1 million in royalties. The question is whether the show is willing to wait potentially years to go to market with the product. Only time will tell as to whether his car seat saves the world or is reduced to the long list of other products killed by the bureaucratic machine.
Labels: inventing, patents