Public perceptions of smart products: important findings for manufacturers and their insurers on perceived blame

This article was co-authored by Kieran Berntsen, Litigation Assistant, London.

Humans are attuned to the attribution of blame to other humans and their actions. Smart products however raise a unique question: “what happens when objects that are created to replace human action lead to undesired outcomes?”. The Office for Product Safety and Standards’ (OPSS) report ‘Public Perceptions of Smart Products’ published on 20 September 2021 aims to address this question. Its findings are of particular relevance to manufacturers and their insurers.

The machine is only a tool after all, which can help humanity progress faster by taking some of the burdens of calculations and interpretations off its back. The task of the human brain remains what it has always been; that of discovering new data to be analysed, and of devising new concepts to be tested.

Isaac Asimov, author and professor of biochemistry

Scope of research

The research investigated smart product failure and specifically the consumer attribution of risk and blame when this failure causes harm. Additionally it considered what actions consumers are prepared to take in response to this failure. To achieve this the researchers focussed on three main issues:

  1. How price, care and risk perceptions affect blame attributions
  2. Do safety commitments decrease blame for third parties?
  3. Do perceived product intentions affect blame attributions?

Risk perception

During this research, some model smart products were objectively riskier than others (for example ovens and ladders compared with jackets and mugs). However the research was interested in user perception of risk and as such utilised a calculated value.

Risk was calculated through the user’s perceived risk in the smart versions minus their perceived risk in the non-smart versions. As such the smart ladder, by automating stability, was deemed a safer product and the smart oven, by automating decisions around cooking time and temperature, was deemed a riskier product.

Research results

There were several results which could impact manufacturers and their insurers:

  • Participants considered manufacturers more to blame (75%) than other parties (users, retailers and regulators) irrespective of the product, its price or the care taken in use of the product.
  • The primary response to a failure was to reuse the product more carefully (87%) with stronger actions such as filing consumer and regulator complaints or pressing charges being less likely.
  • If a user took more care in using a smart product they were more likely to blame all the other parties and to take stronger actions such as filing complaints.
  • When considering the effect of risk it was found that as the relative risk of a smart product increased so too did the attribution of blame towards the manufacturer and away from the user.
  • When the purpose of a smart product was perceived to increase safety rather than convenience, the participants were more likely to blame themselves for the product failing.
  • However, advertising the same product to emphasise safety or convenience was shown not to have an effect on blame allocation, suggesting that the assessment of the relative risk by the participants must be separate from how risk/the product is presented. Advertising was therefore shown to be ineffectual in changing the consumer’s view of the safety profile of the smart product.

The OPSS concludes that future work is required to identify in more detail the properties and usage patterns of smart products that promote responsibility misattributions.

Potential key implications

Manufacturers of smart products are more likely to receive apportionment of blame from consumers compared to others within the supply chain and the users themselves when something goes wrong with the product.

It is evident from the OPSS report that the user’s perception of the products emulating a ‘human’ role within the scope of their use will inevitably result in an transfer of blame towards the manufacturer. This inherent perception could see an increase in product liability claims against manufacturers of smart consumer products.

Therefore, to seek to avoid future product liability claims, the key focus for manufacturers of smart consumer products and their insurers both pre and post market release should include:

  • The reliability and safety of their products during the design, manufacturing process and beyond.
  • The management of the consumers’ perception and expectation of the products via appropriate wording and scope of their instructions/guidance for safe use.

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