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Engineering and the VW Scandal

As an engineer who’s also a “car guy”, I’ve monitored the VW emissions scandal with some degree of sadness. I’ve always been proud of being an engineer, and one of my points of pride has been that our profession has a reputation for honesty – almost to a fault (as in being blunt, which some might say is an engineering characteristic). Sure, there are black hat hackers who use their engineering smarts to no good end, but mostly we’re an honest bunch.

So I was disappointed when, earlier this fall, there was the major news that VW had been cheating on the emissions testing for its diesel vehicles. I’ve seen the finger pointed at “rogue software engineers”, but also (and, to me, more likely) at pressure from management. Whether the engineers were acting on their own, giving in to management pressures, or following “orders from headquarters,” it was engineers who did the ugly deed.

Of course, it was also engineers who uncovered the fraud: University of West Virginia researchers working on a project for the International Council on Clean Transportation. Their curiosity and thoroughness – another couple of characteristics associated with engineers – prompted them to really drill down on the claims VW was making.

Then a couple of weeks back, we learned of yet another emissions scandal – this one involving 800,000 gasoline-fueled vehicles sold in the European market.

“An internal investigation at Volkswagen has seen engineers begin to come forward and admit they had a hand in the cheating. Tweaking tire pressures and mixing fuel with motor oil are just two of the ways they’ve explained this was done. Apparently mixing fuel and motor oil allows a vehicle to run more smoothly and produce lower emissions, as does raising tire pressure by 3.5 bar.” (Source: geek.com)

This time, the engineers who fessed up pointed directly at the now-resigned CEO for setting a way too aggressive:

… “a goal of reducing carbon emissions by 30% by this year. A goal that Volkswagen engineers knew they had little chance of achieving legally, but ‘did not dare to tell him.’”

I would hope that, if I were in this position, I would have blown the whistle earlier. But the culture of not pushing back, and not speaking up, may have been too strong at VW. Disastrously so.

In any case, all the reading I’ve been doing about VW got me to thinking about Critical Link’s Ethics Policy, which says that:

Critical Link was founded and has been built on the highest standards of technical excellence and ethical business conduct.  The success of the Company is a reflection of our adherence to those standards. Critical Link depends on the judgment and high personal standards of each of its employees in conducting business with integrity and in compliance with the law.

As a representative of Critical Link, each individual employee has a personal responsibility for both the integrity and the consequences of his or her actions.  Additionally, Critical Link makes every effort to ensure that we select partners, suppliers and vendors who we do business with that share our ethics and values.

Of course, there are words on paper, and words in action, but we believe we have both going for us.

Still, it never hurts to think these things through, especially in light of the completely unethical actions on the part of VW, actions that may even be jeopardizing the company’s long term viability.

I’m still proud of my profession but, as I said, it never hurts to think these things through every once in a while.