Park Doing ’88, a lecturer in the Cornell Bovay Program for History and Ethics in Engineering, spoke about the technology and software involved in the design of driver-assist and driverless automobiles at a talk Friday.
Doing expressed his shock when, in response to the fatal crash of a Tesla vehicle in self-driving mode this past May, there was “no backlash [and a] very small reaction.” In fact, he said he “saw people rolling out the red carpet,” glorifying Tesla’s technological advances instead of holding the company accountable for the crash.
Doing added that there are very few, if any, rules that can hold these companies responsible for the consequences and impacts of their products. Their technology relies heavily on software, which the government cannot regulate.
According to Doing, there’s a “gray area of driver-assist and full driverless technology” that makes it difficult for government regulatory agencies to hold automotive companies accountable.
Doing discussed a “clean diesel” automobile designed by Volkswagen, which was advertised as sporty, fuel efficient and eco-friendly. However, the vehicle failed tests, showing that it was not as environmentally friendly as advertized.
Volkswagen had the option to roll back the campaign and admit the claims were false, but they decided to “work around the laws” and “dial in what [needed] to be dialed in, in order to pass the tests,” according to Doing. James Robert Liang, a Volkswagen engineer, later pled guilty to federal charges of making misleading claims.
“Well, in the Volkswagen case, they’re paying $15 billion, and that’s real money,” Doing said. “People are going to jail. And it can’t even be pinpointed it to one single accident … What is Tesla paying?”
This safety issue harkens back to Tesla’s use of software, because the technology allows Tesla to be treated more like a software company, while Volkswagen was considered an automaker, according to Doing. This distinction made it easier to hold Volkswagen accountable for their false claims. Doing said this disparity raises important issues as cars become increasingly dependent on software.
Prof. Bradley Wendel, law, said “perfect safety is impossible,” in car design, which makes it difficult to determine the standard by which automakers should be judged.
This lecture was the seventh annual Braudy Workshop on Engineering Management Ethics, sponsored by Dr. Robert Braudy ’66 and his wife Judi. The program aims to bring together students from the Johnson School of Management, the Cornell Law School and the College of Engineering to discuss controversial issues regarding technology and society.