James Kotecki (00:08): 

This is CES Tech Talk. I'm James Kotecki, bringing you one of my favorite C Space Studio interviews from CES 2024. I had a lot of great conversations in Las Vegas, and I know you're going to like this one, so enjoy. Hey, welcome back. You're in the C Space Studio. I am James Kotecki. We are at CES 2024, and we get to talk to Dr. David Steel, Executive Director, UL Standards & Engagement. Welcome to the C Space Studio. 

Dr. David Steel (00:37): 

Good morning. 

James Kotecki (00:38): 

Good morning. So UL Standards & Engagement, let's just start by defining what that is. I understand the organization itself is relatively new. 

Dr. David Steel (00:45): 

Yeah, yeah. So we trace our roots back to really 1894, the Chicago World's Fair when electricity was coming to buildings and they were catching fire. And our founder, William Henry Merrill, was hired by the insurance industry to look at the risks from electricity, and that was the birth of Underwriters Laboratories. And since then, we've gone through some changes. Most recently, we're now three distinct organizations. So UL Research Institutes does safety research, looking at impending threats and so on. Our organization, UL Standards & Engagement is a nonprofit that develops safety standards and does advocacy for safety. And then there's a for-profit UL Solutions, which does testing, inspection, and certification for companies. So if you look at your toaster, you look at your washing machine, you see that little UL mark, that's coming from UL Solutions. But our entity is nonprofit, looking purely at safety through standards. 

James Kotecki (01:42): 

So UL overall as a brand means there's some kind of standard to it, there's some kind of safety protocol to it, someone has checked it out and made sure that it's safe. So what are you thinking about then here at CES? What brings you to CES this year? 

Dr. David Steel (01:55): 

So really the key for us is looking at areas of innovation and thinking about that safety dimension to it. And really throughout the history of Underwriters Laboratories and now UL, it's about various innovations coming and then the role that we can play in ensuring safety. First, as I mentioned, it was electricity coming to buildings. Then we were active in aviation a hundred years ago when that was coming out, then it was automotive. Now more recently, it's areas around the new electrification: clean energy, batteries, other technologies there. How do we ensure that those are safe so that we can provide a platform for innovation, which is the big CES message, but in a safe way? So a customer, a partner knows safety is built into something and then innovation can flourish on that. 

James Kotecki (02:45): 

And maybe a philosophical question, but how do you define safety? A building bursting into fire because the electricity wasn't wired correctly, that's certainly one thing that's unsafe. Do you have a broader definition of it than physical safety? Do you mostly focus on the physical side of it? 

Dr. David Steel (03:00): 

Yeah. So traditionally we've looked a lot at electrical safety and fire safety. Those have been core areas for us. So obviously it's clear what the safety implications are there. But now we're looking more at emerging areas of technology like autonomy or how should autonomous vehicles behave to be safe or look at robotics. But always just looking at that, yes, physical safety and how do we ensure that manufacturers, developers, designers understand a platform on which they can develop things? And then it becomes really that trust as to yes, we know that this is safe, and then we can innovate on top of that. 

James Kotecki (03:38): 

And how does the organization actually work to create a safety standard? I imagine you're not just on high from a mountain proclaiming something. It must be a highly collaborative effort. 

Dr. David Steel (03:46): 

Right. And so that's really the beauty of this voluntary consensus-based standards approach. I know it's a bit of a mouthful, but the way we develop standards is through voluntary technical committees. So we have over 4,000 volunteers from industry, from academia, from government, other organizations who volunteer their time on our technical committees. And those committees then develop these standards by consensus so that no group can game the system. But what comes out of that is a consensus-based standard. And it's just a remarkable thing that we can convene these groups and people are volunteering their time to be there, to come up with a result that is really this guidance document for industry, for regulators, for partners. This is a way to use this technology in a safe manner. 

James Kotecki (04:37): 

And how often does this bridge over into regulatory? Because it sounds like this is a consensus-based approach when you're doing it. A regulator, a lawmaker can force somebody to do something, and maybe sometimes that's important and maybe the industry actually wants that to happen. So tell me about the bridge there between something that you develop and something that eventually might become a regulation. 

Dr. David Steel (04:56): 

That's absolutely right. The standards that we develop, they're freely available to folks to read, to look at. We make them as broadly accessible as possible, but then it's up to manufacturers to adopt them. And we hope they do, or retailers look at them. And then sometimes, yeah, regulators will adopt them into code. So we saw, for example, last year the problems of e-bike fires in New York City where this was a major safety risk. New York City Council voted last year that from September of last year, any e-bike sold, leased, rented in New York City had to comply with UL Standard. So that was their way of ensuring, okay, let's make sure that we'll have that safe floor and then let companies innovate on that. So sometimes there's regulation. 

James Kotecki (05:46): 

And I imagine this is a good thing for industry because if you had had e-bike fires and there was no regulation or no potential framework for guidance, you would have lawmakers either scrambling to catch up, maybe just banning it outright because they didn't have anything to hold onto, putting some kind of indefinite pause on it. This actually allows the industry into the conversation. 

Dr. David Steel (06:03): 

Exactly. And that's also part of the message here. At CES there's so much innovation, so many new things, but sometimes the tendency, if there is a risk or a hazard would be to ban that. And we saw that with e-bikes. We saw that some agencies in New York were saying, "Maybe we should just ban this technology completely." And our view is always, standards can really facilitate the innovation safely. So it's standards that unlock that promise of innovation, but in a safe way. And particularly battery technologies, we see so much of that now with the transition to renewable and clean energy, whether it's e-bikes, eMobility devices, electric vehicles, energy storage systems, lithium ion batteries are at the heart of those. So let's make sure we have safety standards in all those critical parts of the value chain and then let innovation flourish around those. 

James Kotecki (06:57): 

There's always the sense, especially if you walk the show floor here at CES, that innovation, technology is accelerating faster and faster every year. You said, I think, you have 4,000 groups who are looking at different standards potentially. Do you feel confident that you can keep up or do you feel like eventually, or maybe now we're at the point where is the pace of innovation ever going to really exceed the ability of humans to judiciously figure out how to put standards in place for this stuff? 

Dr. David Steel (07:27): 

Yeah. So we already see with things like regulation, lots of conversation of does innovation outstrip policymakers ability to think about it, to regulate it, and so on? In safety standards, it's also very much on our responsibility to ensure that we keep up with that. And that's a big part of our message here at CES, is looking for technical committee members who will join our technical committees, give us their input, looking to seed new areas so that we can go after these emerging technologies and ensure their safety. But it's very much because of the way we do this with this volunteer consensus process, we need those volunteers to be a part of. 

James Kotecki (08:08): 

I suppose that's the only way to really do it, right? You have the people who are involved in creating the technology help to at least propose certain standards for it, otherwise you get people that aren't involved and it would be a much slower pace. Are you concerned with bringing diverse minds into the process of creating these standards? And can you talk to me a bit about that? 

Dr. David Steel (08:26): 

Yeah. Diversity is a big piece of what we're thinking about is just firstly making sure that our standards relevant to all abilities. We just signed an agreement with Accessibility Standards Canada, but in Canada, we're looking there at how we make our standards more relevant to different accessibility groups. We're looking at how we make our technical committees more diverse so that we get different viewpoints there. And just here at the show, we're announcing that we're looking at our whole library of 1,800 standards and other documents to ensure gender inclusive language and that those are truly responsive to the population that we serve. Safety needs to be universal. It can't just be safety for a specific population or group. It's universal. 

James Kotecki (09:14): 

I assume that's important. You go back, you review things that may have been written a few years ago or more, and you make sure that they're still relevant for as many audiences as you can. Even if there wasn't as much diversity as you wanted at the time, maybe now you can get another set of eyes on it. 

Dr. David Steel (09:25): 

And our first standard, we celebrated last year, 120 years of our first standard, which was for a fire door. It's still a standard in effect. It's been updated many times. But when you've got that history and legacy of contributions to safety, you need to stay with the times, whether it's innovation, whether it's different populations. But yes, we've got to stay current. 

James Kotecki (09:48): 

I understand you do some work with the Paralympic Games. Does that work cross over into the inspiration that you have for the work that you do with UL Standards & Engagement? 

Dr. David Steel (09:58): 

It does. I think firstly, it's very mission driven. Both what we do as UL Standards & Engagement as a nonprofit driven by safety, extremely mission driven. What I do volunteering with Paralympics, same thing. It's about how do you provide elite sport opportunities to people of all abilities? And if you believe in the power of that mission, both those missions, there's a lot in common as well as just inclusivity. We're living in a time when it's about finding opportunities for everyone. Safety should belong to everyone. Sporting opportunities should belong to everyone. So yeah, there's a lot of great stuff that gets me excited both about my UL Standards & Engagement mission, but also the Paralympics. 

James Kotecki (10:42): 

And are the Paralympics happening alongside the Olympic Games here in Paris this year? 

Dr. David Steel (10:42): 


James Kotecki (10:48): 

You going to be there in Paris? 

Dr. David Steel (10:49): 

I think so, yeah. 

James Kotecki (10:49): 

Okay. Maybe we'll try to see you there. Dr. David Steel, UL Standards & Engagement, thanks so much for joining us in the C Space Studio. 

Dr. David Steel (10:55): 

Thanks, James. 

James Kotecki (10:56): 

Well, I hope you enjoyed that conversation from CES 2024. That's our show for now, but there's always more tech to talk about. Hit that YouTube subscribe button. Leave a comment, follow us on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, iHeartMedia, or wherever you're getting this show, and get more CES at ces.tech. That's ces.tech. I'm James Kotecki talking tech on CES Tech Talk.