Ethics is Real!

September 29, 2015

The new revelation that Volkswagen has been cheating on their emissions tests really irks me. It seems this is just the latest in a history of automobile manufacturers risking public welfare and skirting laws. Often the blame has been placed on management, but the engineers who had an inkling of what was going on are not absolved of the wrongs. The American Society of Mechanical Engineers have a very similar code of ethics as ASCE. Canon 1 is pretty explicit in that the public interest supersedes the shareholders.

Engineers shall hold paramount the safety, health and welfare of the public and shall strive to comly with the principles of sustainable development in the performance of their professional duties.

~ASCE Code of Ethics, Canon 1

As an engineering student, I recall engineering ethics seemed pretty straightforward. To the extent we were ever put to the test, it was simply to avoid the temptation to cheat. At my alma mater, the University of Michigan, exams were not proctored. Instead we had to print the honor code, vowing not to cheat, on our exams. It was understood that to cheat was breaking the trust that our peers, professors, and future clients would have in our integrity. I think the policy worked really well. Cheating was rare, to my knowledge. And, students got a taste of the integrity required of engineers.

In the real world the problems are much less clearly defined and the lines of ethics blurred. When I began my career, I felt that the building code would carefully guide my decisions and insure safety in all designs. No longer. The code is a useful reference, but I now realize that the grey area called “engineering judgment” is sufficiently broad as to require constant referral back to the basic tenants of the code of ethics.

 Engineers shall perform services only in areas of their competence.

~ASCE Code of Ethics, Canon 2

In 1995, the New Yorker ran a story about how the structural engineer of the Citicorp Center in New York was alerted to a design flaw by a student. This story is upheld as a prime example of good ethics, as the engineer, William LeMessurier, alerted the Client and the authorities and demanded reinforcement measures at significant cost. In time, I think all engineers are presented with a “LeMessurier” moment at some point in their career.

Engineers shall issue public statements only in an objective and truthful manner.

~ASCE Code of Ethics, Canon 3

Earlier this year, I was working on a addition to an existing structure. We thought we had a complete understanding of the foundations, because in addition to the original design drawings, we also found a set of shop drawings (drawings produced by the contractor, generally confirming the intended design). With these documents in hand, I confidently approved adding additional load to the foundations. Then one day, I happened to unroll the old shop drawings. I realized that what we had previously assumed were multiple copies of the same drawing were actually revisions. The later revisions indicated that the foundations had been downsized during construction. A few back-of-the-napkin calculations confirmed my fears that our design could no longer be supported on the existing foundations.

At that point, I was the only one who was aware of the problem. I knew that the Client would be unhappy about the added cost of foundation strengthening. And the behavior of foundations is typically so unpredictable that large safety factors are used. Maybe the foundations would hold anyway? No one would ever know. I could have avoided a few difficult conversations.

Instead, I passed the word up the chain of command. We spoke with geotechnical experts and commissioned new tests – which basically confirmed the unfavorable sizes. Ultimately, we changed the load path of the new structure and installed new foundations to supplement the existing. I like to think that our clients appreciated our integrity. The problem would have been many times worse if we had said nothing and a problem had manifest itself when the building was occupied.

Ethics is real! There is good reason that there are so few structural failures in this country. A strong contributor to that record is the integrity of the designers and builders. The engineers in the world’s largest companies would do well to emulate civil engineers in their adherence to an engineering code of ethics.

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  • Ken, Dan, et al,

    In the context of ethics, the situation seems clear that the actions are not appropriate, software code to subvert emissions regulations.

    I concur as noted, ethics is/are real, not straightforward, and legal and ethical are not the same:

    I wonder if those involved recognized the situation as such, something that is unethical, was such a question pondered by anyone? Programmers assigned to write code to get an engine to pass an emission’s test but not recognizing the implications of what regulations were? Maybe even if they did recognize what they were doing, but consider the regulations too extreme, would that matter any? NASCAR racing, “if you are not cheating, you are not trying”, I believe attributed to Richard Petty. Is the situation one of pushing to the limit to determine what can be achieved before getting caught?

    Is it clear that emission standards are appropriate or does violating emission standards cause harm? One part of a news report I read noted that diesel truck engines get more scrutiny since there are more such engines/vehicles on the road. The impact of a few VW diesels compared to all vehicles is not significant. Nevertheless, clean air/clearner air is in the public interest for sure. Emmission controls to make air completely clean = pure, no pollution, is not practical. There are discharge limits for every WWTP project I have worked on that do just that, permit a level of pollution. Furthermore, in drainage design I am involved with, I use storm return periods that recognize there is some probability of failure = too much runoff that the system can not handle.

    Were engineers involved at all? Engineers meaning Professional Engineers (P.E.s or the German/other country equivalent), employees with engineering education (not P.E.s), employees with titles of engineer (clearly not P.E.s), or code writers/programmers/computer scientist? Does a design in Germany or some other country have any relevance to engineering regulations or codes of ethics in any US state or US based professional organization? Is the bigger issue the commonly referred to “industrial exemption”?

    For the engineers (PEs or otherwise) involved at some level, where they responsible to know what the computer program was doing?

    It would not surprise me to find that an entire vehicle and all components are designed and manufactured and no PE was involved at all, someone with a license to practice engineering in any jurisdiction.

    If I remove the catalytic converter from my car, legalities aside, am I volitating a code of ethics?

  • I get irked when software processers and code writers want to call themselves software “engineers”, then deliberately flaunt their crimes against ethics, the environment, and public health. Completely opposite of what we do as Engineers.

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