By Bryant Ficek
On February 1, 2018, MikeOnTraffic published an article about the Federal Highway Administration’s (FHWA’s) repeal of their Rectangular Rapid Flashing Beacons (RRFB) interim approval. In essence, the RRFB was no longer allowed for new installations due to patent issues. As explained by the FHWA, the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD), which directs and guides the installation of signs, pavement markings, and other elements associated with navigating the transportation network, does not allow patented devices. Patented elements are counter to the principle of uniformity and consistency in communication to the road users.
On March 20, 2018, the FHWA issues a new interim approval of the RRFB. The reason for the change is Carmanah, a manufacturer of solar LED lights and solar power systems, purchased the patents and then disclaimed them. John Simmons, CEO of Carmanah, was kind enough to grant us time to discuss this issue and his role in resolving it.
As John relayed, after the original interim approval of the RRFB, IA-11, several manufacturers including Carmanah began provided an RRFB system and equipment. Besides being an effective tool to assist with pedestrian crossings, the flashers fit well within Carmanah’s desired products – energy optimized LED infrastructure that can be solar powered. Also after the FHWA issued IA-11, a patent for the RRFB was granted. At that point, the patent holder sued Carmanah along with several other manufacturers for patent infringement.
The issue then moved to the courts. In Carmanah’s and other’s view, the patent was not properly issued, and a re-examination of the patent itself was needed. Over several months, this re-examination was occurring. However, the patent holder continued to apply patent claims, resulting in further legal difficulties. In December, as we wrote, the frustration at having an interim approval of a still-patented device caused the FHWA to issue the repeal of IA-11.
As Carmanah kept defending themselves against the patent claims and discussing the issue with the FHWA, they decided to resolve the issue for everyone. As John stated, “Not often in life do you get the chance to do the right thing.” Acting without contributions from others, Carmanah negotiated the acquisition of all patents and subsequently abandoned and disclaimed them.
This move resolved the patent issue causes the repeal and puts the RRFB into the public domain where it belongs. Anyone is now free to manufacture and sell an RRFB product. You can read more about Carmanah and their work to resolve this issue here.
The FHWA has a Frequently Asked Questions page about the new interim approval, IA-21. In particular, agencies need to request new approvals to continue installing RRFBs. In addition, IA-21 does have some subtle differences from IA-11 based on continued research. From the layman’s perspective, however, the RRFB interim approval is the same as before.
Carmanah obviously has a financial stake and commercial interest, both in resolving legal claims and being able to continue to sell the product. While recognizing this self-interest, we at Spack Enterprise still applaud this move to put a life-saving device back in our toolbox of solutions. Finances were clearly a factor, but this decision was ultimately value-driven.
As a final ‘thank you’ to Carmanah and their actions, we’ll let John have the last word:
“Our vision is to be the global leader in the signals industry, and one of the traits of a good leader is knowing when to take a stand for the benefit of all.” – John Simmons, Carmanah CEO