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Thoughts from the staff of the UCL Centre for Systems Engineering


Engineering, Ethics & Risk

By Ian Raper, on 30 September 2015

The recent issue with emissions testing has highlighted a few issues which are very important within the field of systems engineering, and indeed engineering in general.

The first is ethics, and is one that is considered important by the various professional bodies representing the engineering professions. For example, to quote from the Institute of Engineering and Technology (IET), “Being a professional engineer means that the wider public trust you to be competent and to adhere to certain ethical standards”.

We have to question therefore how the ‘cheat device’ software was able to be present in and used in operations of those vehicles. There is various speculation in the press about these matters and it is not the purpose of this article to comment on such media reporting. It can be presumed though that engineers either chose to, or were coerced into, making use of the functionality of the software designed to aid with factory testing beyond this design intent.

The second issue relates to the risk culture of the organisation. Did anyone in the organisation make the association between the inappropriate use of this software and the potential impact of it being discovered. In risk management terms this event would probably be hoped to have a very low likelihood (i.e. they hoped they wouldn’t be found out) but the consequence was always going to be huge ($billions wiped off market value, massive lost of trust in the brand). Was this assessment of the risk ever made, was it captured, and if so how far up the organisation did the risk review go?

Organisations are complex systems in their own right, and the culture of the organisation is an emergent property of the interactions of the various parts (management, departments, employees, suppliers, etc.). Culture can also be affected by a reinforcing feedback loop, i.e. behaviour begets the same kind of behaviour. So any review of the organisation needs to recognise these factors.

This is just a very brief highlight of the complexity of two of the issues that surround this situation. It will be interesting over the coming weeks, months and even years to see whether the true root causes are identified and addressed. It is a useful wake up call to all organisations that ethics are important and that appropriate risk management might help avoid making the worst decisions.