The 7th Annual Sidney and Ann Braudy and Louis and Edith Manker Engineering Management Ethics Workshop for MBA, Law, and M. Eng. Students was held Oct. 2, 2015

From the Ford Pinto to the GM Ignition Switch (with the Toyota Prius in between) to the VW Emissions Case: Engineering, Management, and the Auto Industry

On Friday Oct. 2, 2015 the 6th Annual Sidney and Ann Braudy and Louis and Edith Manker Engineering Management Ethics Workshop for MBA, Law, and M. Eng. Students was held in Cornell’s ILR Conference Room. This year the workshop compared the recent GM ignition switch scandal with the emerging VW emissions case. Moderators for the workshop were Prof. Ron Kline (Director – Bovay Program in Engineering Ethics), Dr. Park Doing (Bovay Program), Dr. John Callister (MAE, Director of Entrepreneurship Programs), Carol Grumbach (Associate Vice Provost), Dr. Erica Dawson (Director- Leadership Programs), Dr. Bob Braudy (Cornell ’65, ’66), and Judi Braudy. The workshop was attended by 11 MBA students, 5 Law Students, and 12 Engineering Students.

The Workshop opened again with a presentation by Dr. Erica Dawson about ‘Motivated Reasoning’ to set the stage for considering decision making in the cases. It resonated with the group that indeed, rationalizing decisions is commonplace and that people, in general, do not see biases that they bring to decisions that are ostensibly based of on facts. After that, Dr. Park Doing gave a presentation that laid out the details of the GM ignition switch case and what was known at the time of the emerging VW emissions case. In each case, decisions were made where it was clearly known that safety would obviously be compromised.

The workshop then broke into small discussion groups to explore why such decisions were made and whether they were, indeed, the same kinds of decisions.  After the small group discussions, the groups convened and each group explained their conclusions to the wider group. Dr. John Callister noted that he had worked in the auto industry and that it had been his job to sign off on changes to parts as designs developed.  A main aspect of the GM ignition switch case was that a part was changed, but a new part number was not assigned to the changed part, resulting in confusion and delays in investigations into accidents. Dr. Callister pointed out, as he did the previous year, that such a decision was a ‘cardinal sin’ in automotive design – no amount of motivated reasoning could make it seem right. It was agreed, again, that engineers who took part in this were in stark violation of engineering codes of ethics, regardless of the financial state of the company at the time and the pressure within the company to do so.

The group then discussed the differences between the GM and VW cases.  Was VW’s decision to install ‘defeat’ software to get around environmental laws in the US, and the engineers’ complicity within the company, similar in kind to the GM case where safety was compromised? Dr. Callister brought up the automotive industry’s general antagonism toward environmental regulation, and that he could easily see how VW (and other car companies) would see violating environmental laws as a ‘lesser sin’ than compromising safety per se (it was pointed out that the number of deaths due to the extra pollution from the VW diesel cars was statistically seen to be about 100 people). There was lively debate on this point among the students. In general, students did not see a distinction and were surprised that there would be an industry-wide culture that minimized environmental and pollution concerns. It was also noted that VWs defeat software itself was proprietary and therefore not accessible to regulators. This seemed profound to the group – that with the rise of software in automobiles more and more aspects of the technology of cars was not inspectable by reulators.

At this workshop, the increase percentagewise of MBA students was seen as valuable for discussions, and plans were made to bring in more MBAs for future workshops.

2015 Braudy Workshop