The eclipse is coming! I’m an amateur astronomer who just happens to live along the path of ‘totality’ where the eclipse will be the most spectacular. So, you can imagine I’m pretty excited to see it…using protective eyewear of course.

In preparation for the eclipse, my wife purchased protective eclipse glasses from Amazon. A few weeks later she got an urgent notice: The protective glasses are being recalled. Her money is being refunded, and Amazon warned us not to rely on those glasses for eye protection during the eclipse. Why not? Amazon refers us to NASA’s judgment, and NASA says protective eyewear should conform to ISO standards (in this case, the standard for protective eyewear, ISO 12312-2).  Many products on Amazon are not compliant to this standard.

I’m guessing you have never heard of ISO 12312-2 before….my wife never had, and neither had I.  After all, we’re not experts on the human eye or protective eyewear…we just want to watch the eclipse. We will rely on a technology (in this case, dark glasses), the details of which we don’t entirely understand, and we expect it to be safe.

How can we be sure that we’re safe? ISO standards help to answer this question.

ISO is the International Standards Organization, a not-for-profit global enterprise. ISO standards (of which there are hundreds, applying to various products) establish a common understanding of the products we buy. Is a product safe? How does a product need to behave? How is it tested? ISO answers these questions in a useful and practical way. Not all products meet a given ISO standard…compliance is voluntary.  But when questions arise about product safety and liability, compliance to ISO becomes a key characteristic of a product.

ISO standards have a few common characteristics.  While any one given standard can be arcane and confusing, we can understand a few basics that apply broadly:

  • Standards are technical: ISO 12312-2 is hard to understand. If you open up an ISO standard and read it, you’ll see technical jargon that’s hard to decipher for non-experts. But what’s valuable is the idea: technical experts have agreed on what is safe and published it for all to see. So my wife and I don’t have to read technical articles on eye protection.  Instead, we can look for ISO compliance and infer that the product is safe.
  • Standards are not laws, but they’re legally meaningful: Why did Amazon refund our money? Of course, they care about our eyes. But they also realize the risk to their bottom line: what if thousands or millions of people sued Amazon, claiming their eyes were damaged? If Amazon sells products for safety purposes that don’t conform to well-recognized standards, they are exposing their customers to a risk…a risk that could have been reduced by standards-compliant products. Legally, that’s a hard place to be for Amazon, or for any company.
  • Standards enable commerce: Amazon was the middle-man in a transaction, between my wife and a manufacturer of protective eyewear. In more complex products, there are many players, supplying many components into many larger systems. How can they all purchase and integrate each other’s supplied components, without some understanding that they are safe, correct, and consistent?  Standards provide assurance…not only for consumer products that we buy but for the parts within those products.

A car is much different (and much cooler) than a pair of safety glasses. But some similarities exist. When you drive a car, you rely on technologies, the details of which you don’t entirely understand, and expect them to be safe. This is a case for ISO standards; and specifically, the ISO 26262 standard, which applies to electronics and software in modern vehicles. That’s what I work on every day at kVA…developing new vehicle technologies that are compliant to the ISO 26262 standard, to make sure vehicles are as safe as they need to be. ISO may seem like an arcane and remote concept. But it’s protecting me and my family this weekend, in our car and while we watch the eclipse with our new glasses. And yes, they’re ISO 12312-2 compliant.

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