The 8th Annual Sidney and Ann Braudy and Louis and Edith Manker Engineering Management Ethics Workshop for MBA, Law, and M. Eng. Students was held Friday September 23, 2016.

VW vs. Tesla: Considering Ethics in Engineering Management

On Friday September 23, 2016 the 8th 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 VW emissions scandal with the even more recent death from Tesla’s ‘driver assist’ technology. Moderators for the workshop were Prof. Ron Kline (Director – Bovay Program in Engineering Ethics), Dr. Park Doing (Bovay Program), Prof. Bradley Wendel (Law), Dr. Erica Dawson (Director- Leadership Programs), Dr. Dana Radcliffe (Johnson School of Management), Prof. Toby Ault (Earth and Atmospheric Sciences), Dr. Bob Braudy (Cornell ’65, ’66), and Judi Braudy. The workshop was attended by16 MBA students, 4 Law Students, and 15 Engineering Students.

Dr. Park Doing gave a presentation to open the workshop that compared the two cases. In the VW case, a market for ‘clean diesel’ technology was seen and when the technology couldn’t deliver, VW decided to purposely violate US environmental laws via defeat software in the vehicles. Extra pollution was put into the atmosphere that, statistically speaking, caused 100 extra deaths. The company was found out, a VW employee was charged with a crime (defrauding regulators and consumers) and convicted, with possibly more to come, and the company has paid upwards of $15B in settlements and fines. In the Tesla case, the driver who was killed signed a waiver to use the driverless software, there were no regulations preventing its use on roads, and the accident has not seemed to slow the push for driverless vehicles coming from both industry and municipalities like Pittsburgh, PA. The point was made that Tesla promoted the technology as ‘driver assist’ on one hand by touted and promoted a world of driverless cars on the other, seemingly an encouragement to use the technology thusly.

In the discussions, the students were fascinated by the new world of driverless technology. What are the rules for implementing it? Why don’t other drivers have to also give their consent?  Why wouldn’t there be rules for what kinds of sensing technologies are valid? It was agreed that a kind of ‘technological enthusiasm’ coming from Silicon Valley seemed to be at play with both consumers and regulators – that Tesla was being treated as a software company that would naturally release beta versions of the car while the technology is developed. These issues carried the discussions – it was seen that VW simply and straightforwardly broke the law and compromised health, and that both engineers and business management were culpable. But with Tesla, the group (like regulators and consumers) tended to give it some leeway. After all, the technology is touted as a way to save tens o thousands of lives on the roads.  While it was agreed that Tesla was getting a pass through its waiver of liability form, the group was still inclined to let Tesla (and other companies) work out the technology on the actual roads. The engineers who worked for Tesla were not seen as unethical as those that worked for VW, even though it was agreed that a scenario where a driverless accident could kill 100 people was within the realm of possibility. This was a point of difference between the students and the moderators!

Discussions for this workshop were quite lively – the emergence of driverless technology as a topic and the new balance between MBA students and Engineering students were seen as primary reasons. The Cornell Daily Sun reported on the workshop here.


2016 Braudy Workshop