The perils of recalls of electronic products

Product recalls have been around for a while. You get a notice in the mail. You either go into a dealer at some point, any point, for service, or you swap the product via the mail. Nicer recalls mail you a new product first and then you send in the old one, or sign a form saying you destroyed it. All well and good. Some recalls are done as “hidden warranties.” They are never announced, but if you go into the dealer with a problem they just fix it for free, long after the regular warranty, or fix it while working on something else. These usually are for items that don’t involve safety or high liability.

Today I had my first run-in with a recall of a connected electronic product. I purchased an “EyeFi” card for my sweetie for valentines day. This is an SD memory card with an wifi transmitter in it. You take pictures, and it stores them until it encounters a wifi network it knows. It then uploads the photos to your computer or to photo sharing sites. All sounds very nice.

When she put in the card and tried to initialize it, up popped a screen. “This card has a defect. Please give us your address and we’ll mail you a new one, and you can mail back the old one, and we’ll give you a credit in our store for your trouble.” All fine, but the product refused to let her register and use the product. We can’t even use the product for a few days to try it out (knowing it may lose photos.) What if I wanted to try it out to see if I was going to return it to the store. No luck. I could return it to the store as-is, but that’s work and may just get another one on the recall list.

This shows us the new dimension of the electronic recall. The product was remotely disabled to avoid liability for the company. We had no option to say, “Let us use the card until the new one arrives, we agree that it might fail or lose pictures.” For people who already had the card, I don’t know if it shut them down (possibly leaving them with no card) or let them continue with it. You have to agree on the form that you will not use the card any more.

This can really put a damper on a gift, when it refuses to even let you do a test the day you get it.

With electronic recall, all instances of a product can be shut down. This is similar to problems that people have had with automatic “upgrades” that actually remove features (like adding more DRM) or which fix you jailbreaking your iPhone. You don’t own the product any more. Companies are very worried about liability. They will “do the safe thing” which is shut their product down rather than let you take a risk. With other recalls, things happened on your schedule. You were even able to just decide not to do the recall. The company showed it had tried its best to convince you to do it, and could feel satisfied for having tried.

This is one of the risks I list in my essays on robocars. If a software flaw is found in a robocar (or any other product with physical risk) there will be pressure to “recall” the software and shut down people’s cars. Perhaps in extreme cases while they are driving on the street! The liability of being able to shut down the cars and not doing so once you are aware of a risk could result in huge punitive damages under the current legal system. So you play it safe.

But if people find their car shutting down because of some very slight risk, they will start wondering if they even want a car that can do that. Or even a memory card. Only with public pressure will we get the right to say, “I will take my own responsibility. You’ve informed me, I will decide when to take the product offline to get it fixed.”

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