Development of Standards for Smart Homes amidst an Era of “Connectivity”

In a post COVID-19 society, the role of our homes in our lives will be new in important ways. For example, homes will become central bases of productive activities for remote workers. This will provide large segments of the population with professional opportunities not previously accessible to them, including the elderly and people with disabilities for whom commuting is not possible.

With an eye on the future of work, technological development of “connectable” devices among home appliances is accelerating. In fact, such devices have already been released into the market, and their proliferation is increasing daily.

Smart homes, in which many such connectable devices are installed, are expected to improve convenience in our everyday lives. We, however, must not forget that such convenient devices bring not only opportunities and benefits, but also risks and costs.

Japan is advancing international standardization for safety of smart homes in anticipation of various kinds of risks and costs to human life.

How we can grapple with unforeseen troubles?

Smart homes enable people to create comfortable living environments through controlling home appliances by taking advantage of IoT (Internet of Things). For example, smart homes allow users to turn on their home air conditioners wherever they are, to check contents of their home refrigerators without opening the door, and to monitor the safety of young children or elderly people staying at home. Smart homes are useful for labor saving of family chores and security management of family members. Furthermore, they have potential to improve energy conservation by connecting systems between electrical appliances. Dissemination of smartphones and smart speakers have accelerated the momentum for technological development, and many companies are engaging in fierce competition to initiate new concept of smart homes.

Technological innovation will improve convenience and comfort in users’ every-day lives. At the same time, it may force users to face unexpected risks because home appliances or systems, which are being simultaneously operated, may cause malfunction or unforeseen trouble due to interference between such appliances.

For example, let us assume that a gas leak detector and an air conditioning system are respectively connected with an automatic window controller system. The air conditioning system keeps sending a signal to close the window in order to maintain a comfortably cool indoor temperature. At the same time, the leak detector sends a signal to open the window once it detects a gas leak. What happens if such two contradictory signals are concurrently sent to the window controller system?

System developers have to assign priorities to various signals which will be received by the window controller system, otherwise it may become confused and malfunction, or it may prioritize the wrong signal, such as keeping the room comfortably cool while it fills with toxic gas.

There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of such risks awaiting the future of home life. Aiming at reducing and managing such risk cases, Japan proposed an international standard stipulating functional safety of devices and systems used in smart homes. This proposal is now under deliberation at the IEC. This standard will surely contribute to reducing risks not only in residence but also in the business environments of suppliers and service providers who are engaged in smart home systems.

Specifications for handling system errors are not sufficient to ensure users’ safety. Such an approach is championed by Mr. Toshikawa of Misawa Homes Co., Ltd., a high-end residential construction company in Japan. Even if devices and systems themselves are in normal working condition, accidents may happen due to misuse or unintended operation by users or for many other unforeseeable reasons. We need to anticipate the possibility of a wide range of risks, lest the conveniences that our home appliances offer us also threaten our wellbeing.

Following an example of the safety criteria for automobiles

Under the initiative of the Japanese Construction Material & Housing Equipment Industries Federation and the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology, a project to develop safety standards is in progress. They endeavor to develop standards which can manage hazardous events caused by other factors than simply system errors. Shortly after the initiation of the project, they were confronted with a challenge: how to ensure users’ safety in areas not covered by functional safety of devices and systems. After long discussions, they found insight from a set of safety criteria under development in the automobile sector.

This set of criteria called “SOTIF (Safety of the Intended Functionality)” is based on an idea which covers misuse or unintended operation by users and mechanical conditions on performance limitations while making predictions about possible safety risks besides system errors. Conventional safety technologies for automobiles are focused on measures to maintain safe driving in the event of mechanical failure. However, recent technological innovations represented by autonomous driving systems and “connected cars” (cars equipped with functions to connect the vehicle to other systems such as cruise-assisted highway systems) have led to a significant change in approach for safety technologies for automobiles. Thanks to this background, SOTIF was inaugurated.

SOTIF consists of specifications designed with different risk factors including weather and other drivers’ conditions in nearby vehicles. “Conventional safety standards for functions of automobiles were developed with a notion that safeness is ensured unless a defect exists in the system. However, this notion is deficient.” This common recognition underlies SOTIF.

Aiming at presenting “SOTIF for houses” as an NP (new work item proposal) at IEC, Japan held frequent discussions on it as a PWI (preliminary work item) with interested countries/regions. Subsequently, the NP was successfully presented at IEC and the voting has been started in June 2021.

Mr. Toshikawa emphasizes that the approach of SOTIF is necessary for the future of smart homes. He shows willingness to advance the consultations with stakeholders in order to establish the international standards for “SOTIF for houses”.

How to predict risk factors

That being said, there are critical differences between the required level of safety criteria for automobiles and those for houses. Safety criteria for automobiles are based on the premise that the users are licensed drivers who have acquired a certain level of driving skill. In contrast, houses are used by a wide variety of people having different personal attributes, and they use home appliances in different conditions. In addition, looking at the safety criteria for houses from the aspect of product safety, it is necessary to predict a risk scenario involving “reasonably foreseeable misuse”. However, predicting “reasonably foreseeable misuse” is by no means easy in this day and age where technological innovation of IoT and the form of relevant services are rapidly progressing.

For that reason, it is critically important for stakeholders to work together to establish safety criteria for houses beyond the bounds of each company and industrial sector. And, beyond the borders of individual countries.

The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry of Japan foresees that the mature market of smart homes will be created in the near future through international standardization which contributes to reducing risk factors in the business of service providers in addition to ensuring residents’ safety and security.

Needs for international standardization

IEC 63168 stipulates functional safety standards to address potential risks posed by system errors resulting from connection among electrical and electronic devices, and SOTIF is addressing hazards caused by users’ misuse or usage beyond the intention of system developers. In the context of smart home safety, IEC 63168 and SOTTIF are complementing each other.

One day when connectable devices are widely introduced into our houses and residency in smart homes becomes the norm, our everyday lives will be dramatically improved, and many new opportunities will materialize. At the same time, lest we find ourselves with homes that are comfortably cool but also filled with toxic gas, we must never forget that the more sophisticated and complicated systems become, the more likely unknown hazards exist behind them.

International standards for smart homes are indispensable for providing safe and secure residences throughout the world.

Learn more about this work and Japan’s international standardisation activities here.