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Catching up to technology

My Take | December 11, 2023 | By: Janet Preus

The first motor vehicles hit the road in the 1880s, but according to, the first laws to regulate them, enacted by Connecticut almost 20 years later in 1901, set speed limits of 12 MPH on city streets and 15 MPH on country roads. That’s it. The sum total of traffic laws for “motors.”

I’m inching toward a comparison with a technology that could be, in the long term, similarly impactful. Maybe that’s a stretch, but what will be done with smart textiles beyond our current imaginings … well, there’s no telling, is there? The industry is now dealing with critical questions: what standards should be applied, and how will regulations be formulated, enacted and enforced? 

Thirty years after the first vehicle appeared there were thousands of cars on the road with virtually no laws regulating traffic, beyond speed limits. The development of automobiles and other vehicles roared right past laws faster than states could think laws up, never mind some sort of national-level regulation of these new-fangled contraptions. Seatbelts didn’t show up until the 1950s; the Department of Transportation wasn’t established until 1966. So, yes, there is precedence for new technologies challenging our ability to standardize, test and create meaningful laws to guard public safety. 

We are not all that far away from a 30-year marker for smart fabrics. Are we in a similar situation with smart textile products and e-textiles? They’re still not that widely available to consumers, whose interest is surely impacted by their prices. Simply understanding them better would boost the trust level, which is where standards will be enormously helpful. 

The development of smart fabric technologies and applications may seem slow—and the benefit of these advanced materials may not always be clear—but R & D continues with breakthroughs on meaningful (if incremental) improvements being announced fairly regularly, from my vantage point. Conformity in testing and established standards are trying to stay with these new developments, but how do you regulate something that isn’t “done” yet? 

Such is the challenge facing the regulation of all new technologies. In the early stages of anything new—including cars—inventors and entrepreneurs just went for it. By the time the impact of the invention was upon us, there was nothing to do but act as quickly as possible to respond. But “quick” is not the point with something as complex as an e-textile wearable, for example. Absolute reliability in the product’s functionality is the goal, and developing a testing process that connects with a meaningful standard, which will meet or surpass (eventual) government regulations, takes time.

Keep in mind that the work on standards in this industry is being done in large part by volunteers. If the potential commercial value of smart fabrics were more widely acknowledged, perhaps there would be more money behind expediting the procedure—if more money would, in fact, speed things up. 

Among the “ifs” lurks another question. What about artificial intelligence, which is also here, and also lacking regulation. If the effort to establish smart fabric standards could get more support, maybe it could serve to help in the effort to establish gates for AI. That development will be taken up soon in another blog post on this site. 

Janet Preus is senior editor of Textile Technology Source. She can be reached at

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