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Car emissions substantially contribute to global warming and the decrease in air quality. The situation is especially clamant in an urban environment where the exhaust gas from transportation is concentrated, posing a danger to human health. Oxides of nitrogen (NOx) emitted into the air from car fuel causes lung damage that can lead to lung cancer or complications in respiratory disease. That is why the amount of NOx that can be emitted by a single vehicle is regulated by the U.S. EPA for all car producers (local or imported) to comply with.
However, the pressure for time and the desire to maximize income may lead to the violation of these policies. The case study under discussion provides an example of an intentional breach of environmental regulations during the engineering process. Volkswagen scandal has become a precedent in the environmental protection practice, which made engineers reconsider their responsibility and attitude to the ecological situation. The understanding of the reason behind this case helps to see what steps should be taken to increase engineer responsibility and to avoid such incidents in the future.
The Charges against Volkswagen
The scandal around Volkswagen broke in September 2015 when the automobile construction company was accused of the attempt to circumvent the emission regulations stated in the CAA (Clean Air Act). According to Harris et al., “emission controls on certain diesel engines were programmed to operate only in a laboratory testing mode” (260). Thus the emissions of NOx were significantly lower in test conditions than in real driving. While the laboratory results demonstrated half of the legal NOx emission level, the actual amount of emitted nitrogen oxides in diesel versions of Volkswagen Jetta was from 10 to 40 times of the allowed maximum (Harris et al. 260).
Thus, the company was accused of intentional and knowing engagement in law violations. The scandal was followed by the arrests of two top executives of VW and further investigation. The corporation pleaded guilty and agreed to an extensive fine as the result of the scandal. The case has undeniably harmed the reputation of VW around the world, but it has also aroused significant concern about the responsibility of the whole car producing industry for the environmental situation.
Causes of Volkswagen Scandal
The reasons behind this corporate crime are not simple, but they still suggest that this engineering decision was not an unconscious mistake. Instead, the car developers incorporated a specific technology that showed the desired results in the laboratory test mode. Still, the question remains who is responsible for the whole crime and what factors made it happen. According to Harris et al., the top executives of the company claimed that they were not informed of the cheat (260). They still tried to delete the documentation to cover up the fraud when they found out about it. Even if these claims are true, they are guilty of imposing pressure on the engineers.
The case of Volkswagen shows how the pressure of money and deadlines affects the quality and safety of the work. As Harris et al. explain, “VW engineers realized they could not meet U.S. emissions standards, so they incorporated software that enabled the emissions control systems only when the vehicle was operating in test conditions” (261). The commercial interests of the company, in this case, took over the responsibility for safety, public health, and environmental protection. To avoid similar incidents in the future, the engineers should not be put under such circumstances and should be given more influence in the company o be able to oppose the fraud.
Ways to Increase Professional Responsibility
Such companies as Volkswagen exist for their primary purpose of making a profit, so it is only logical that they try to save costs and time for car production. Still, there are responsible for making their activity legal and safe and setting public health as their priority.
The truth is that the professional responsibility of the engineers who take vital decisions is often not strong enough to oppose the pressure they face from their employers. In order to be able to act responsibly, the engineers need to have the power to influence companies’ decisions. The best choice, in this case, is the external regulation and protection of engineering ethics by non-profit organizations.
The solution to the situation should focus on both regulating professional ethics and giving the engineers the instruments to overcome the pressure. Harris et al. suggest the idea of “pursuing engineering licensure” as the answer to the question (261). Such implementation would set several codices and regulations for the engineers to follow, as well as the means to control them. Licensure is a common practice in many professions that helps to set the standards in the industry. For example, a certified nurse has to comply with a set of rules, even if the employer does not require it. Moreover, such licensure would give the engineers the confidence in the communication with the employers as they would be able to refer to it in case of conflicting instructions.
The analysis of such cases as the Volkswagen scandal and their reasons is crucial in the context of the whole industry. The fraud became the precedent of engineering ethics violation that calls to the implementation of new preventing regulations. The circumstances under which the engineers worked at VW are the instructive illustration of the commercial pressure in large corporations. Strong professional responsibility is the key to oppose such pressure, but the engineers often not have enough influence. The external regulation of the occupation, such as professional licensure, would increase the sense of responsibility in the industry.
Harris, Charles Edwin, et al. “Volkswagen Emissions Scandal.” Engineering Ethics: Concepts and Cases. 6th ed., Cengage, 2019, pp. 260–261.