AI News, The Engineer’s Dilemma Resurfaces in Volkswagen’s Emissions Scandal

The Engineer’s Dilemma Resurfaces in Volkswagen’s Emissions Scandal

Late last year, I spent an afternoon taking IEEE’s online training in compliance and ethics, a program designed to make sure its staff and volunteers understand the laws, regulations, and policies that govern the organization in its operations around the world.

The classes cover rules against bribery, how to recognize conflicts of interest, what constitutes data privacy and security, and employee law in the workplace.

The automotive industry is no stranger to business skullduggery, but what was startling was VW’s big bet—a gamble that the deliberate manipulation of emissions-testing results, by algorithm and by hand, would never be discovered.

Confronted with questionable orders or restrictions, they find themselves in the untenable situation of having to do something unethical—which includes going along with it and remaining silent—or face career damage.

And that, according to Unger, is the dilemma of engineers: how to live up to professional expectations when they’re creating and applying technology but don’t have an opportunity to weigh in on how, in the end, that technology is used.

Perhaps our best bet is to assume that any system that involves humans and technology and power and money will inevitably experience an ethical meltdown.

Code of Ethics

Professional Obligations As Revised July 2007 By order of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, former Section 11(c) of the NSPE Code of Ethics prohibiting competitive bidding, and all policy statements, opinions, rulings or other guidelines interpreting its scope, have been rescinded as unlawfully interfering with the legal right of engineers, protected under the antitrust laws, to provide price information to prospective clients;

accordingly, nothing contained in the NSPE Code of Ethics, policy statements, opinions, rulings or other guidelines prohibits the submission of price quotations or competitive bids for engineering services at any time or in any amount.

is further noted that as made clear in the Supreme Court decision: NOTE: In regard to the question of application of the Code to corporations vis-à-vis real persons, business form or type should not negate nor influence conformance of individuals to the Code.

Engineering ethics

There was considerable tension between the two sides as large industrial employers fought to maintain control of their employees.[1] In the United States growing professionalism gave rise to the development of four founding engineering societies: The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) (1851), the American Institute of Electrical Engineers (AIEE) (1884),[2] the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) (1880), and the American Institute of Mining Engineers (AIME) (1871).[3] ASCE and AIEE were more closely identified with the engineer as learned professional, where ASME, to an extent, and AIME almost entirely, identified with the view that the engineer is a technical employee.[4] Even so, at that time ethics was viewed as a personal rather than a broad professional concern.[5][6]:6 When the 19th century drew to a close and the 20th century began, there had been series of significant structural failures, including some spectacular bridge failures, notably the Ashtabula River Railroad Disaster (1876), Tay Bridge Disaster (1879), and the Quebec Bridge collapse (1907).

This involves meeting some combination of educational, experience, and testing requirements.[9] In 1950, the Association of German Engineers developed an oath for all its members titled 'The Confession of the Engineers', directly hinting at the role of engineers in the atrocities committed during World War II.[10][11][12] Over the following decades most American states and Canadian provinces either required engineers to be licensed, or passed special legislation reserving title rights to organization of professional engineers.[13] The Canadian model is to require all persons working in fields of engineering that posed a risk to life, health, property, the public welfare and the environment to be licensed, and all provinces required licensing by the 1950s.

Ethics cases rarely have easy answers, but the BER's nearly 500 advisory opinions have helped bring clarity to the ethical issues engineers face daily.[15] Currently, bribery and political corruption is being addressed very directly by several professional societies and business groups around the world.[16][17] However, new issues have arisen, such as offshoring, sustainable development, and environmental protection, that the profession is having to consider and address.

According to first principles, this duty overrides the duty to a client and/or employer.[30] An engineer may be disciplined, or have their license revoked, even if the failure to report such a danger does not result in the loss of life or health.[31] In many cases, this duty can be discharged by advising the client of the consequences in a forthright matter, and ensuring the client takes the engineer's advice.

In very rare cases, where even a governmental authority may not take appropriate action, the engineer can only discharge the duty by making the situation public.[32] As a result, whistleblowing by professional engineers is not an unusual event, and courts have often sided with engineers in such cases, overruling duties to employers and confidentiality considerations that otherwise would have prevented the engineer from speaking out.[33] There are several other ethical issues that engineers may face.

A Chief Ethics Officer Won’t Fix Facebook’s Problems

In addition, holding companies accountable for ethics is even harder when leaders fail to see their commercial motives and the ethics of their actions as in conflict.

After Zuckerberg decided to keep Thiel on board, he justified the move by appealing to his commitment to openness, even to views that one might not agree with—never mind that Thiel’s own views and actions are antithetical to openness in any other sense, especially if you’re a member of a free press or committed to the ideal of democracy.


A conflict of interest exists whenever an employee’s personal interests are inconsistent with —i.e., conflict with —

As a result, an employee must not engage in activities outside of work that create a possible conflict of interest between an employee's and Bechtel's best interest.

Conflict of interest laws and regulations applicable to current and former U.S. Government employees, including Special Government Employees, are described in[other policies and procedures relating Recruitment of United States GovernmentEmployees for Positions with the Bechtel Group of Companies, and Recruitment andHiring of United States Government Employees.

Ethical Breakdowns

The vast majority of managers mean to run ethical organizations, yet corporate corruption is widespread.

Engineers had discovered the potential danger of ruptured fuel tanks in preproduction crash tests, but the assembly line was ready to go, and the company’s leaders decided to proceed.

Taking an approach heralded as rational in most business school curricula, they conducted a formal cost-benefit analysis—putting dollar amounts on a redesign, potential lawsuits, and even lives—and determined that it would be cheaper to pay off lawsuits than to make the repair.

Whenever a problem was raised that meant a delay on the Pinto, Lee would chomp on his cigar, look out the window and say ‘Read the product objectives and get back to work.’” We don’t believe that either Iacocca or the executives in charge of the Pinto were consciously unethical or that they intentionally sanctioned unethical behavior by people further down the chain of command.

In 2008 the BusinessWeekeditor Peter Coy wrote: The Sears executives seeking to boost repair rates, the partners devising billing policies at law firms, and the Clinton administration officials intending to increase homeownership never meant to inspire unethical behavior.

Indeed, among the best-replicated results in research on managerial behavior is that providing specific, moderately difficult goals is more effective than vague exhortations to “do your best.” But research also shows that rewarding employees for achieving narrow goals such as exact production quantities may encourage them to neglect other areas, take undesirable “ends justify the means” risks, or—most important from our perspective—engage in more unethical behavior than they would otherwise.

At Ford the senior-most executives involved in the decision to rush the flawed Pinto into production not only seemed unable to clearly see the ethical dimensions of their own decision but failed to recognize the unethical behavior of the subordinates who implemented it.

The “independent” credit rating agencies that famously gave AAA ratings to collateralized mortgage securities of demonstrably low quality helped build a house of cards that ultimately came crashing down, driving a wave of foreclosures that pushed thousands of people out of their homes.

These agencies made their profits by staying in the good graces of rated companies, not by providing the most accurate assessments of them, and the agency that was perceived to have the laxest rating standards had the best shot at winning new clients.

It suggests, for instance, that a hiring manager is less likely to notice ethical infractions by a new employee than are people who have no need to justify the hire—particularly when the infractions help the employee’s performance.

(Bonds racked up 762 versus Aaron’s 755.) Although it was well known that the use of performance-enhancing drugs was common in baseball, the Giants’ management, the players’ union, and other interested MLB groups failed to fully investigate the rapid changes in Bonds’s physical appearance, enhanced strength, and dramatically increased power at the plate.

If steroid use did help bring the home runs that swelled ballpark attendance and profits, those with a stake in Bonds’s performance had a powerful motivation to look the other way: They all stood to benefit financially.

(In fact, Ovation had a history of buying and raising the prices on small-market drugs from large firms that would have had public-relations problems with conspicuous price increases.) Why didn’t Merck retain ownership and raise the prices itself?

We don’t know for sure, but we assume that the company preferred a headline like “Merck Sells Two Products to Ovation” to one like “Merck Increases Cancer Drug Prices by 1,000%.” We are not concerned here with whether pharmaceutical companies are entitled to gigantic profit margins.

Assuming that Merck knew a tenfold price increase on a cancer drug would attract negative publicity, we believe most people would agree that using an intermediary to hide the increase was unethical.

The pharmaceutical was making the drug for $2.50/pill (all costs included), and was only selling it for $3/pill.” Then a subgroup of study participants was asked to assess the ethicality of “A: The major pharmaceutical firm raised the price of the drug from $3/pill to $9/pill,” and another subgroup was asked to assess the ethicality of “B: The major pharmaceutical X sold the rights to a smaller pharmaceutical.

In order to recoup costs, company Y increased the price of the drug to $15/pill.” Participants who read version A, in which company X itself raised the price, judged the company more harshly than did those who read version B, even though the patients in that version ended up paying more.

Further experiments using different stories from inside and outside business revealed the same general pattern: Participants judging on the basis of just one scenario rated actors more harshly when they carried out an ethically questionable action themselves (directly) than when they used an intermediary (indirectly).

When an executive hands off work to anyone else, it is that executive’s responsibility to take ownership of the assignment’s ethical implications and be alert to the indirect blindness that can obscure unethical behavior.

Executives should ask, “When other people or organizations do work for me, am I creating an environment that increases the likelihood of unethical actions?” You’ve probably heard that if you place a frog in a pot of boiling water, the frog will jump out.

The auditors could earn a percentage of a jar’s contents each time they approved an estimator’s guess—and thus had an incentive to approve high estimates—but if they were caught approving an exaggerated estimate, they’d be fined $5.

And if something seems amiss, they should consider inviting a colleague to take a look at all the relevant data and evidence together—in effect creating an “abrupt” experience, and therefore a clearer analysis, of the ethics infraction.

He is running short of time to collect sufficient data points for his study within an important budgetary cycle in his firm.” Story A continues: “As the deadline approaches, he notices that four subjects were withdrawn from the analysis due to technicalities.

This drug is a profitable and effective drug, and years later shows no significant side effects.” After participants read one or the other story, we asked them, “How unethical do you view the researcher to be?” Those who read story A were much more critical of the researcher than were those who read story B, and felt that he should be punished more harshly.

(This simple step might have headed off the disastrous decisions Ford managers made—and employees obeyed—in the Pinto case.) And encourage your staff to ask this important question when considering various options: “What ethical implications might arise from this decision?” Above all, be aware as a leader of your own blind spots, which may permit, or even encourage, the unethical behaviors you are trying to extinguish.

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