As I start my pursuit of a doctorate in leadership, one of the earliest chapters I came across was on the study of leadership ethics. Reading through the chapter caused me to ask: Why was I not introduced to this sooner as part of my engineering degrees? Today’s engineering curriculum is packed full of mandatory courses in mathematics, engineering fundamentals, and business. It is time for one more: Ethics.
Generally speaking, ethics classes are the study of right and wrong decisions. Ethics courses do not necessarily teach students right from wrong, but present the concept that, throughout their career, decisions made have consequences. These consequences must be considered beyond successful accomplishment of the given task. As an engineer, I make decisions every day. Many of these are technical decisions and have physics-based answers. However, I also face decisions that are ethical or moral in nature. With changes in an engineer’s responsibilities in the work place and advances in technologies, I feel it is time to introduce ethics as a mandatory part of the engineering curriculum.
Why engineering & ethics matters in three categories: past, present, and future decisions.
The Discovered Past – The last several years have presented several examples of situations where engineers made wrong ethical decisions and that resulted in significant impacts on their company, their industry, and society. In the VW Dieselgate situation, for the last 10 years, engineers installed software in vehicles that enacted an alternative calibration for when the vehicles were undergoing compliance testing. The decision to install this software has been costly to the environment, and to the company with over $14 billion in fines and the requirement to buy back or repair vehicles. At Mitsubishi, fuel economy test procedures were not updated for 25 years, resulting in an overstatement of capability. At Takata, engineers failed to elaborate in test reports on the dangers during airbag deployment for over 10 years. To date, 14 million vehicles from 11 automakers have been recalled over the defective airbag. Each of these situations presents an example where for many years and most likely many reviews, engineers and engineering managers made decisions that were beneficial for the immediate bottom line of the company, but they failed to make the correct long term decision for the company and for society. With exposure to an ethics course in their history, I propose many of these engineers would have made different decisions.
The Online Present – Social media now can expand the awareness of an event at an accelerated pace. An event that happens in the morning almost anywhere in the world can make international headlines by the afternoon. In this environment, engineers must be aware of a new level of accountability. Ethics courses would introduce engineers to the concept that decisions they make have the potential for social accountability.
While the online nature of today’s society can provide challenges, it also enables sharing ideas and knowledge. In fact, it could be the solution for giving engineers an ethics education. An online environment enables the ability for ethics courses to reach every university. High quality web based training with thought leaders in ethics could be made available to every university or company. Additionally ethics discussion could expand beyond the classroom to other universities and professions globally.
The Or Decision Future – Today’s engineering students are the next generation of decision makers. More than ever, these decision makers need to be equipped with the understanding of how making ethical decisions impacts their company and the world around them. An example of one near-term situation that students will face is programming Autonomous Vehicles for on road usage. McKinsey & Company, an independent consulting group reports, “A progressive scenario could see ~50 percent of passenger vehicles sold in 2030 being highly autonomous and ~15 percent being fully autonomous.” Previously decisions made by ‘smart’ products such as vehicles were on-or-off decisions. Sensors and actuators effectively turned on or off safety and control systems while the vehicle was driving. In an autonomous vehicle world, however, software must now make ‘or’ decisions. These ‘or’ decisions such as turning right or left, and braking or accelerating are decisions that have the potential for greater ethical consequences than ever before.
With changes towards increased job responsibility and new accountabilities and opportunities enabled by social media, engineers today need to be equipped with the understanding that decisions have consequences. One way to introduce this understanding is by requiring ethics courses as part of the engineering curriculum. It is time for universities, alumni, engineering professional societies, and industry to join together and provide a foundation for today’s engineering students to become tomorrow’s leaders.
Brett Hinds is Chief Engineer – Electrified Powertrain Systems at Ford Motor Company and a doctoral student with the Center for Values-Driven Leadership. The opinions represented here are his alone, and are not reflective of Ford Motor Company.