Almost all professions and disciplines these days have a code of ethics or code of conduct and so it is no surprise to see references to “ethics in engineering”. The recent business news has been dominated by a scandal affecting the VW motor car manufacturer. It has admitted that it installed a software programme that tells when a vehicle is being tested for exhaust admissions levels and enables it to cheat the test. In other words, when tested the vehicle will show less emissions that it actually does emit.

What are the lessons for ethics in engineering?

Firstly, it seems that many unethical acts are caused by greed. With “lower emissions” vehicles are meet the standards for sale in many countries. Increased car sales means more revenue. However, since it would be employee engineers who devised the code and installed it. If they were on a fixed salary, why would they do it? If they were paid a special bonus to write the software code and install it then again greed raises it ugly head. Perhaps pride or being a hero was the motive. It could be that management set the engineering team a tough emissions target to meet and this could not be achieved in time with existing methods – so someone cheated. Ultimately a few people must have known that they were cheating and decided to do it.

Why did someone who knew not stop it and say – “this is unethical and is breaking the law?” Were they bullied to keep quiet – so another level of unethical behaviour appears.

Secondly, being unethical does not pay in the end. Cheating and lying may produce short term gains, but it seems that in the end there are big losses. For example, the share price of VW fell by about 20% on the news and will probably fall further. It is likely that VW in the USA will be fined a potential $18 billion ( yes, billion) – 400,000 cars x $37,000 each. A few people will lose their jobs.

Thirdly, being unethical affects not just the people being unethical but many others. Individuals and pension funds who hold VW shares will see their capital slashed. Pensioners may get less pensions. Employees of VW who had no knowledge of the cheating may lose their jobs as the CEO did. Byers of those VWs affecting will be inconvenienced by recalls. In addition, all will be affected by the increased air pollution caused by the vehicles – air pollution that could have been prevented if people had acted ethically.