An ethical dilemma in the automotive design process

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Francisc Grigore (

The automotive engineers at Volkswagen are facing an ethical dilemma about their new 2016 Jetta and its transmission system. I am part of the team of mechanical engineers that are working with the transmission system and all of the other car components it interacts with such as the rear and front axle as well as the wheels and braking systems. A few months ago our team had to recreate the transmission system for the upcoming new 2016 Jetta because of a major change in the chassis of the car. The task is relatively challenging and we are a month below the deadline, however, we recently received statistics of the predicted 2016 Jetta demographic. We were told that in years before the majority of people that bought the Jetta were from the northeast United States area and they will most likely stay in the same area for the 2016 Jetta. This meant that our cars were mainly being used in a non-extreme climate area. We had a meeting shortly afterwards and discussed if we should change anything about our design due to the new market information. My one coworker, Mark, who is an esteemed automotive engineer, offered his opinion and said that if the Jetta is being sold in non-extreme climate areas then we can finish the design faster if we eliminate testing in extreme weather temperatures. I found his idea to be really smart because if we designed this transmission system quicker, the whole team, including myself, would have less stress about finishing this project on time. We would also not have to look for material science engineers to aid us on this project. The reason we would need a materials science engineer is that they would help find materials that can withstand high heat and humidity. Financially this is a great idea because we could use cheaper materials and overall bring down the cost of the car which would make everyone at our company satisfied, as well as the consumers. I could possibly receive a promotion for finishing the transmission system on time against all odds. The impact of how we design it would have a minimal impact on the automotive engineering field for the reason that we are not creating a new technology, but instead we are just using proven methods to create a transmission system. Looking back at what Mark said I feel as if it is ethically wrong because if the car is used in extreme climate areas such as Alaska or the Amazon or even in a desert environment, drivers could get injured or in the worst case, die. However, if we do not test for extreme conditions the release of the car will most likely be pushed back and my team and I could possibly get fired. I will have to think about what is the most ethical decision to do and report to my team about my thoughts tomorrow.
I decided to look over the code of ethics from the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE) as well as the one from the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), to help me decide on what is the most ethical decision. There are strong similarities between both codes but the ones that overlap seem to be the key rules. The ASME code, as well as the NSPE code, puts an emphasis that, “Engineers shall hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public in the performance of their professional duties”. [1]. Now my team, in this case, is putting their personal interests and saving time over the public’s safety and welfare and that seems to go against everything the code stands for. That would be enough for me to say I do not feel ethically correct on skipping the extreme weather conditions, however, I feel as if I need more than just that point to convince my colleagues to redesign it ethically. Another useful rule in the code of ethics is as following: “Engineers shall not complete, sign, or seal plans and/or specifications that are not in conformity with applicable engineering standards. If the client or employer insists on such unprofessional conduct, they shall notify the proper authorities and withdraw from further service on the project”. [2]. I believe that testing a car in all possible settings would be a typical engineering standard and that failing to abide by engineering standards would have severe consequences. These rules should have an effect on my team and hopefully we decide to test the transmission system in extreme weather conditions despite the fact that we may very well be past our deadline and could lose our jobs.
It would not be wise to assume that our ethical dilemma has not been seen before; therefore I will take a look at multiple case studies regarding ethical decisions to compare them to my personal dilemma. In one certain case study, they examined the deaths due to airbags around the 1980s. It is fair to say that airbags were designed to save people from death and not kill them but in some cases people died from misuse, particularly women and children. The engineers took a look at what caused the deaths and responded by redesigning the airbag and warning the public to wear seat belts or else the force from the airbag could kill them. [3]. Introducing safety precautions to the public is a great idea to eliminate unnecessary deaths. My team could redesign the transmission system to work in extreme temperatures and then put safety precautions warning drivers to not let the engine heat go in the “red zone” on the dashboard for extended periods of time. Another case study I looked at discusses a decision an engineer had to go through involving a faulty alarm system. The faulty alarm system could not be heard in some parts of the building, thus violating the local fire safety codes. The engineer then proceeded to warn the client that the alarm has to be remade in order to not violate the fire safety codes. The client told the engineer that the funding is not available now and that it will have to be done at a later point. If the engineer does not resolve the issue soon then he could face charges for violating the code of ethics. The case study then discusses what the engineer should do and the most ethical decision is to warn the client that the alarm must be done right away in order to stop preventable deaths due to fires. [4]. This is highly comparable to my case because if we do not fix the issue at hand we would most likely face charges for violating the code of ethics. In both cases there is a financial dilemma; in the first one the engineer does not have the funding available at the time, while, in mine, we have the funding but it would be more financially cost effective if we do not redesign the transmission system. However, in both cases the code of ethics takes higher priority over the financial problems at hand. That is why I would recommend redesigning the transmission system instead of taking the easy way out. The final case study I researched involved a structural engineer who received information from a student engineer that the building he designed had a critical design flaw and could not withstand the forces of strong winds. The structural engineer realized that the student was right but if he redesigned the building it would take a substantial amount of time, effort, and money and also would possibly tarnish his reputation as a structural engineer. [5]. It would be the correct ethical decision to redesign the building and risk losing his reputation in order to save lives. My dilemma is extremely similar to this because redesigning the transmission would not be easy and would have undesired consequences but if we do not redesign it thousands of people could die. All of these case studies are similar in the way that we are faced with a decision to either go through something difficult or to ignore that we could potentially harm or kill thousands of people. The decision should be easy to see, always go the extra mile to ensure that citizens will be safe.
It was not too long ago that our company was in hot water over what many call “diesel gate”. Volkswagen officials revealed that they implemented software inside the vehicles that showed a false amount of diesel emission. This hurt our company severely and we are now trying to be completely honest with the public. [6]. If many people die because of a faulty transmission system in extreme temperatures our company may as well be known as a fake and lying company and consumers would no longer trust our products. This helps in two ways, my team will surely work on testing in extreme conditions after I remind them of “diesel gate” and secondly, we may get to keep our jobs if we tell them that the other option is to lie to the public and obviously it would make more sense for Volkswagen to hold onto the Jetta for slightly longer rather than releasing an unfinished product. If we decide to release an unfinished product and there is a disaster involving death because of the faulty transmission we would end up in the position that Toyota was recently. Toyota had to issue a recall and ended up recalling 3.8 million vehicles such as the Camry and Avalon, and then the Prius on September 30th, 2008. Then, another recall of 4 million vehicles was issued on November 26th, 2009. The next year, Toyota had an even longer recall list: 2.4 million sedans and trucks, 436,000 Prius hybrids, 600,000 Sienna minivans, 14,900 Lexus sedans, 50,000 Sequoia SUVs, 17,000 hybrid sedans, 373,000 Avalons, and 1.13 million Corolla and Matrix hatchbacks. Toyota also lost the trust of the public and tarnished its once reputable reputation because it failed to ethically promote the well-being of the public. [7]. Toyota did not follow the code of ethics and how they should provide what is best for the public which is why they now have a tarnished reputation. Obviously a recall of this level happening to Volkswagen after “diesel gate” would be devastating to Volkswagen’s reputation and would cause many fines and would hurt the company financially. This is a great case to present to my team because no of us would want to have to recall a vehicle and suffer what Toyota went through.
Vehicle Crashes and The Ethics involved
Over the time period that cars existed, there have been two methods to look at what caused the risk to the driver in the car. The first method is the “Crash Avoidance” approach, which was popular up until the 1950s while the second one is the “Crash Worthiness” approach, which was popular after the 1950s. [8]. In the “Crash Avoidance” approach, the main causes for risk of injury or death were hitting another car, the road conditions, and the driver’s state of mind at the time and that’s how the organizations involving automobile technology or insurance viewed the accident. The main approach that we see being used today is the “Crash Worthiness” approach which involves viewing the risk of injury or death as how preventable the car could have made it, a good example would be airbags or advanced braking systems. Since we now use the “Crash Worthiness” approach it would ethically be my team’s fault if there was an injury or death because of a faulty break. This shift in the 1950s sparked more ingenuity because the automotive engineers were now blamed for the accident rather than the road conditions, or the driver’s state of mind. Ethically speaking my team would have to make the breaks work under extreme conditions for it to be ethically correct in our time period. There have been many recorded events where a car that has not been made in preparation for the worst case scenario sparks a recall. One important recall that would be similar to my ethical dilemma would be the case of the Ford Pinto. The Ford Pinto had the gas tank behind the rear axle instead of above it which is a rather unusual design but the engineers ignored it and went through with it. The Pinto turned out to erupt in flames when rear-ended at high speeds. A normal rear end collision would usually end up with the back being crumpled up and the driver suffering whiplash or minor injuries, however in the Pinto, every driver would be engulfed in flames and would usually instantly die. Ford initially stated that they would not do a recall and instead offer to pay off any future lawsuits because it would end up being cheaper for Ford. This was a great ethical debate at the time because Ford essentially stated that they would rather not recall the cars to fix them (for around $11 a car) and instead pay for lawsuits and deaths. There was a big lawsuit a few years later known as “Grimshaw vs. Ford Motor Co.” and Ford got charged over 6 million dollars partially because Ford knew of the design flaw and ignored it and then released the product. [9]. Now if my team does not test for extreme temperatures I can easily see the company going into the same way Ford or Toyota went. Knowing a design flaw and then not fixing it would be completely unethical because you are directly killing people who happen to die in those situations that you did not care to test. And that is why I am highly leaning towards redesigning the transmission system instead of taking a more convenient option.
A good piece of advice I received a while ago that I use every time I have to decide between two options is: “Choose whatever you will regret the least after you do it”. This is useful in this decision because I would have much less regret if I had to work overtime and finish a project past the deadline rather than regretting that I chose to ignore a fatal design flaw which caused some people to die. I would urge all engineers to go over my advice and to also look over the code of ethics when designing a new project mainly for the safety and well-being of the public. Not only is it the right thing to do but it is legally binding that all engineers follow the code of ethics, I personally believe that if you do not believe in some of the codes then you are fundamentally not an engineer because you are not aiding society in the best way.
[1] “NSPE Code of Ethics for Engineers.”

[2] “Code of Ethics of Engineers.” ASME.

[3] (2013). “Air Bags, Safety, and Social Experiments.” Online Ethics Center for Engineering and Science. (Case Study).

[4] (2014). “Public Health and Safety – Delay In Addressing Fire Code Violations.” National Society of Professional Engineers. (Case Study).

[5] “The Cost of Integrity.” Webguru. (Case Study).

[6] D. Hakim, H. Tabuchi. (2015). “Volkswagen Test Rigging Follows a Long Auto Industry Pattern.” New York Times. (Online Blog).

[7] S. Bowen. (2015). “Auto recall crisis, framing, and ethical response: Toyota's missteps.” Public Relations Review. (Online Article). DOI: 10.1016/j.pubrev.2014.10.017. pp 40-49

[8] J. Wetmore. (2004). “Redefining Risks and Redistributing Responsibilities: Building Networks to Increase Automobile Safety.” Science, Technology, & Human Values. (Print Article). pp 377-405

[9] M. Gladwell. (2015). “The Engineer's Lament.” New Yorker. (Online Blog).
I would like to thank the librarians who compiled a list of databases for the freshman engineers to use and find reputable sources for this paper. I would also like to thank my girlfriend, Rachel, for going over my essay with me and helping me fix grammar mistakes.

University of Pittsburgh, Swanson School of Engineering


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