Our society is grounded in a set of morals and ethics that have been engrained in Western Civilization since its birth. The tenants of individualism, equality, intellectual advancement, work ethic and familial bonds are still relevant today and have advanced over time to include even more peoples of different societies and nationalities. These codes play a huge role in every decision we make. Although we aren’t consciously weighing ethical points at every turn, they are firmly rooted in our thought process.
This isn’t to say that people’s level of reliance on ethics doesn’t vary based on their situation. For example, you may behave according to different ethical standards in your workplace than you do around friends or in your home. This makes it very difficult to state a set of ethics for all of life’s scenarios . In fact, most schools of thought on ethics feel that each person should evaluate their decisions within the greater situation
, testing solutions based on theoretical factors such as harm, publicity, reversibility and defensibility. 
The autonomous car is coming. Perhaps not today, but very soon in the future, the driver will have a minimalized role in the operating of a vehicle. Already safety features are playing more of a role in keeping passengers safe by analyzing a multitude of factors and stepping in if it is determined the driver is not acting as they should in piloting the vehicle. As we move into the future it is almost guaranteed that the driver’s role will be further minimalized until they only serve to pilot a car in extreme emergency situations when the vehicle is no longer able to operate safely. But there will be extremely challenging tasks to be overcome before this driverless car dream can become a reality. Engineers must design hardware and software that can react to the millions of scenarios and execute these reactions on the road flawlessly. This will require testing by not just engineers
, but also civilians who can provide a perspective that is completely unbiased and neutral. But when the first person gets injured, a firestorm of negative media attention will be unleashed. Therefore, whichever automaker gets to the autonomous finish line first needs to be perfect in order to survive the fallout. But if it is done correctly, it has the potential to revolutionize transportation and save millions of lives in the process.
DEVELOPMENT & TESTING
The decision lies with me. This project has been in development for ten years and could be on the mainstream market in another two. It would be a waste of monumental proportions to throw it away now. Two years ago, when GM CEO Mary Barra retired she made a strong case to the board for someone with an engineering background to replace her in order to, as she put it
, “advance General Motor’s innovative product line.” For some reason the board pulled me from my little office on the 15th floor into the chair at the head of the boardroom table. On my first day sitting in the chair I was briefed on the top secret autonomous car project that had been in development for years and was approaching the point where it could be tested in the real world. From that day advancing the project, code named “Star Trek,” occupied my thoughts from the time I awoke until I went to sleep. A year ago I met with the head of the Star Trek team, Julia Kelly. Her team was confident that we could now move into the consumer test stage of product development. After sitting through several meetings with my legal team, we were able to begin to select people to test the product. We reached out to people who had previously been involved in product testing for General Motors, inviting them to a meeting with myself, Ms. Kelly and our legal team. We briefed them on the basics of the technology as well as the risks associated with using it. Those that were willing to be in the consumer test were invited back a week later for an in-depth safety briefing. One of the people that returned for the safety seminar was famed billionaire business magnate Ronald Steel. He had contacted us early on about participating in the consumer study. The legal team and I discussed the advantages and disadvantages of having Mr. Steel on the consumer board. He was a public figure so anything involving him
, positive or negative, would be magnified on a national scale. Ms. Kelly’s team was confident that the risks of the consumer test were minimal, and my marketing team saw his participation as a fantastic endorsement, therefore he was eventually approved to participate. We met with each participant individually and they signed a final confidentiality agreement and a liability agreement. They were each given a Cadillac CT6 fitted with the Star Trek technology and an extensive demonstration with an engineer involved with the project to ensure they understood all the features of the car and how to operate it. They would file weekly reports in addition to the constant remote diagnostics we received from the cars. I stood on the sidewalk proudly as one by one they all pulled out of the GM lot, into the real world.
At approximately 4:30 AM this morning, I received a call that Ronald Steel had been in a major single car accident on Interstate 70, near Pittsburgh. The event I have been praying would never happened has happened. He is currently in a medically induced coma in the UPMC Intensive Care unit. Already the media is suggesting foul play could be involved. No one knew that he was in an autonomous car because no one had bothered to look closely enough at the wreckage to notice the subtle changes to the CT6’s body, but soon some nosy reporter will figure it out and we will completely lose control of the situation. We have compiled all the data from last night and determined that quite possibly one of the frontal impact sensors failed, most likely due to inclement weather. During the safety briefing we had warned the participants repeatedly that they must be prepared to take control of the vehicle at all times, especially in poor weather. Our best guess is that Mr. Steel was asleep behind the wheel when the sensor failed and was therefore unavailable to take control of the vehicle. We have two choices: attempt to cover our tracks by retrieving the vehicle before someone else does and run damage control once we have the car and can launch an internal investigation, or we can release a statement admitting that something went wrong with our car and we accept responsibility. The decision lies with me.
The first choice I have is to retrieve the car right now before the press or the investigators begin to suspect our involvement. The car, regardless of the situation, is property of General Motors. We could have a retrieval team pick up the car and return it to our possession. From there we could perform our own investigation of the accident, allowing for limited outside influence. When the media puts together exactly what happened
, which they inevitably will, we will have control over the wreckage and will have a full understanding of the facts. Assuming Mr. Steel recovers, he won’t be able to say too much officially because he is legally bound by the confidentiality agreement. But he also could possibly leak the story as retribution for the accident. A person with his vast wealth and power could very easily release the story to the media while making it still very difficult for our legal team to trace it back to him. And when it does leak it will be the scandal of the millennium. One of the world’s largest automakers involved in a high profile accident while testing autonomous technologies on a billionaire celebrity. That will play well, I’m sure. He would have limited legal power to collect damages from us, but the bad press could potentially hurt us more than a law suit. If my involvement was ever uncovered by the media, my career would be over.
The second option is to release a statement laying out
, in vague terms, what happened. Of course it would begin chain of events that would have guaranteed repercussions for years. It would delay the future of the autonomous car program greatly, both at GM and at companies around the world, developing which are their own vehicles. Lives that otherwise would be lost could be saved, once we ensured that the accident could never occur again. For me, choosing this option would be catastrophic because it would undoubtedly end in my forced resignation. I feel a genuine sense of guilt that I OK’d a project that apparently wasn’t ready to be tested on the roads with civilian operators, but everyone knew that assuming the role of a living test dummy was a risky proposition when they signed up.
Every time I am faced with a difficult decision such as this one, I always look back to my early days with GM. During my first training seminar, we had a presentation on different ethical codes that we might put to use during our careers. I didn’t remember all the tenants of the codes though. My whole career I had just let my moral compass guide me through challenging times. But this was different. My decision would affect not just me, but the 200,000 people who work within the company. I definitely needed to contemplate the every ethical angle before I make a judgement.
A CODE OF ETHICS
My first option, plan 1, is retrieving the car and withholding information on Star Trek, putting distance between ourselves and the incident. Looking at the NSPE code of ethics I can see immediately that it would violate several key canons. It violates the Professional Obligations section of the code. It states under the section
, Honesty and Integrity, that, “Engineers shall acknowledge their errors and shall not distort or alter the facts.” We aren’t sure that the error was ours without conducting an investigation, but it would be a good bet that something went wrong related to the engineering. But Mr. Steel did sign the liability agreement and violated the safety instructions when he fell asleep while the vehicle was operating autonomously, but blaming the accident on a man fighting for his life just seems cruel. We would also be violating canon 3, which states, “Engineers shall avoid the use of statements containing a material misrepresentation of fact or omitting a material fact.” Following plan 1, we would be misrepresenting to the world the true facts of the case and our involvement in the accident, either through omission or misrepresentation. But plan 1 would uphold the Professional Obligation canon that states “Engineers shall work for the advancement of the safety
, health and well-being of their community.” If we were to cover our involvement in the accident we could save countless lives and advance human technology, not to mention the livelihoods lost when the scandal begins to effect the bottom line and we have to begin to cut jobs throughout the whole company .
My second option, plan 2, would most likely be even harder to weather because all of the hypothetical negative scenarios would become very real possibilities; jobs lost, major delays to the autonomous program, economic fallout within the company and within the greater global economy. But I would only be breaking one of the aforementioned canons because I would be turning my back on the people for the sake of my integrity . Ms. Kelly suggested that I look at the American Society of Mechanical Engineers to see if I could find more clarity in them. Unfortunately they just reiterated for me the lack of real world legitimacy of such documents. Each of my options both upheld and violated one of the central canon of the code. Plan number 1 violated canon 7, “Engineers shall issue public statements only in an objective and truthful manner and shall avoid any conduct which brings discredit upon the profession,” while upholding canon 1, “Engineers shall hold paramount the safety, health and welfare of the public in the performance of their professional duties.” Plan 2 is the exact opposite, violating canon 1 in favor of canon 7. So neither code of ethics helped me in any way to advance my decision making process because my decision isn’t as simple as saying “always be honest,” or “do what has the most positive impact on the most people.” It is far more complicated .
After the code of ethics fiasco, I wanted to look at the problem from a different perspective so I asked my legal team if they could think of any similar scenarios where responsibility was questionable and the future of an industry hung in the balance. They couldn’t, but they found some other cases they thought might be helpful. In most of these cases when a company withheld information about a vehicle, especially when consumer’s lives were lost
, the effects were negative for the company as in the case of the Ford Pinto gas tank debacle when Ford Pintos would combust if the gas tank was breached. Ford knew about the problem, but didn’t immediately issue a recall, instead finding it more financially advantageous to try each accident in court . Another case they brought up was in our own history. GM had once discovered that their ignition switches on certain cars were faulty and could cause the car to lose power if bumped in a certain way. They deemed it too costly to fix, but they eventually were caught misrepresenting the facts and faced huge penalties from the federal government . Volkswagen developed a program that could detect when emissions testing was occurring on its Diesel vehicles and could change engine performance to appear better during the testing. When discovered it took a huge toll on VW’s reputation and in turn, their sales . All of these scandals hurt their respective companies for a very long time because the person making the decision chose to ignore their internal moral compass and pursue financial stability instead. The problem is that these cases are a result of automaker neglect while our case is far more nuanced. Still no clearly ethically superior option has presented itself, and we are quickly running out of time.
INTEGRETY WHEN NO ONE IS WATCHING
Throughout my entire life there has been one person I could always count on - my mother. She always could offer advice on anything with the wisdom and understanding one can only receive from their mother. I gave her a call and told her that I was facing a decision with two basic options, both with monumental repercussions. One would involve withholding information in the pursuit of a better tomorrow, while one would slow technological advancement but I wouldn’t need to withhold any information. I wanted her to tell me exactly what to do like she has done for the past 50 years, but instead she just responded with a quote. CS Lewis once said, “Integrity is doing what’s right, even when no one is watching .” She added, “Do what you believe to be right, the rest will fall into line afterwards.” I thanked her for her input and hung up the phone . Before I could put it in my pocket I received a text from my trusted COO. It said “Steel just passed away. We need to act now.” In the terror of that moment I knew what had to be done.
The fallout of my announcement wasn’t at all like I expected. I told a room full of shocked reporters that Mr. Steel’s accident potentially had a connection to an autonomous vehicle program that had been in development for years. I explained that he volunteered to test the new technology and was excited with the results. His death was a great tragedy and we would devote the full power of General Motors to understanding exactly what had led to the accident. But my doomsday predictions could not have been further from the truth. Mr. Steel was elevated from national celebrity to national hero, a leader who died advancing technology to help the people. General Motor’s profit margins quickly recovered their initial losses and haven’t stopped climbing since. Our reputation changed that day. We became the company that makes the tough choices not based on the bottom line, but on what is ethically and morally principled. I was there, three years later when the first Cadillac Steel, named for Ronald Steel, rolled off the assembly line to its new owner
, Mr. Steel’s wife.
ETHICS ARE COMPLEX
Doing the ethical thing isn’t easy. It can be complex and nuanced, with positive and negative aspects. It can vary and change with time. What doesn’t change is your moral compass. Ethical codes can put onto paper a list of high minded ideals, but they rarely tell the whole story. At some point you need to decide what you believe to be morally right, and let the rest of it fall in line. It will all work out in the end.
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I would like to recognize several individuals for their contributions to this paper. My father, Paul Hoge, and my Grandmother, Ann Hoge, both read and provided feedback on the paper. My roommate
, Cole Partington, also provided feedback.