Comment of the Day: Tesla’s Seat Belt Recall, Moral Luck, and Ethics Chess


Rich in CT delivers a Comment of the Day amplifying the issues in the post, Tesla’s Seat Belt Recall, Moral Luck, and Ethics Chess. Here it is:

I owned a Honda up until last year, until a deer took a gamble that it could get across the same stretch of faster than my car could. Mr. Deer ended up taking a short flight further down the road, and my car ended up taking a short tow to the junk yard.

No one (human) was hurt in this instance, and for that I am grateful.

However, Honda still has my contact information, and sent me a notice that my airbag, which had already been replaced at the dealer, might shoot out metal shrapnel. Both the deer, myself, and my front seat passenger might have died, if the dear strike happened slightly differently, and the damn airbag had gone off.

I am extremely angry at Honda for this failure at multiple levels in their corporation. I may never buy another little beloved little green death trap over this incident. The entire automotive industry is tainted by this incident. One leading airbag manufacturer decided to cut costs by using inferior materials. Some engineer, somewhere signed off on this design change, in direct violation of Canon 1 of every engineering professional organization’s code of ethics:

“Engineers shall hold paramount the safety, health and welfare of the public.”

This irresponsible decision penetrated deep into the industry. Suddenly competitors could not offer as good a price, so THEY adopted the faulty materials. Engineers at the auto manufacturer signed off on using these inferior designs. Their bosses were likely thrilled at the savings.

Now, nearly every car on the road uses some variation of this inferior design. Ex-post facto correction can only go so far. Multiple safety features in these vehicles are precisely calibrated using the the specifications of the original airbag. It is nearly impossible to simply replace one design for another without a major re-engineering and reconstruction of the vehicle. They can only make minute corrections to replacement parts and hope for the best.

This jaloponik website asks how could Telsa find it ethically permissible to issue such massive recall over a single failure. It is simple. A good seat belt design does not fail under accident conditions, not even once. Barring external damage, this should never happen. (Honda, to its eternal credit, offers lifetime free repairs to external damage to its seat belts.) Similarly, of course, a properly designed airbag does not shoot metal shrapnel. Not even once.

Tesla taking swift corrective actions over its engineering error is absolutely necessary. Errors and failures are a fundamentally impossible to prevent. The art of engineering is creating redundant capacity and detection systems to detect and provide early warning to mitigate the inevitable risk of errors and failures.

Engineers are given blind deference from the public as professionals. Swiftly identify and correcting their rare errors is absolutely essential to maintaining their worthiness for this trust.


3 thoughts on “Comment of the Day: Tesla’s Seat Belt Recall, Moral Luck, and Ethics Chess

  1. As a trained engineer, I agree with you completely. There is a time for standardization (less certain, but more efficient strategy) and a time for security (more expensive, but guaranteed strategy). If I’m buying a product that I expect to protect me, I’m paying for security. There is no excuse for putting people in danger in order to save money.

  2. I don’t think it necessarily follows that an engineer signed off on that. It may well have been that management followed the old dictum, “in any project, the time comes to shoot the engineers and release the product”. Of course, they should have followed a different dictum, “never make an engineering decision for accounting reasons” (that’s capable of being generalised to any combination of the three supporting legs typical of most firms: sales/marketing, accounting/finance and operations broadly understood).

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