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Russ College lecture discusses Volkswagen scandal, lessons learned

Tyler Prich | Mar 20, 2017
Mike Zimmer speaking to students, faculty and community

Russ College lecture discusses Volkswagen scandal, lessons learned

Tyler Prich | Mar 20, 2017

In 2015, German automaker Volkswagen was caught using software to skew lab emissions tests on millions of its diesel vehicles – a scandal that caused unprecedented backlash in the automotive industry.

On Thursday, two experts on environmental law – Mike Zimmer, senior fellow and executive in residence at OHIO’s Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs, and Dave Nash, partner and environmental lawyer at McMahon DeGulis – offered a crowd of students, faculty and community members at a Russ College-hosted lecture a look at the lessons the industry learned and the ethical dilemmas that engineers may face in the future.

First reviewing what transpired and how it could have happened, Zimmer dove right into a discussion of what the scandal has taught engineers and what they must consider in the future.

“Shortcuts have consequences,” he said. “Those shortcuts may create short-term gains, but ultimately create long term pain above and beyond just money.”

Zimmer explained how Volkswagen’s culture, initially founded on innovative engineering principles, shifted its focus to more cost-effective measures of improvement, which led to cheating.

He then raised a question to the audience: “When is the engineer supposed to speak up? If the boss tells us to do something, it’s hard to say no, but the engineer must do what is right.”

He concluded by emphasizing that the Volkswagen case won’t be the last to bring up these issues. Since technology is advancing so quickly, and software remains heavily unregulated, engineers will face unprecedented dilemmas in the future.

“Always ask questions,” Zimmer said. “There’s no question that’s irrelevant. There’s no question that’s a waste of time. Ultimately, the important point is the questions that are never asked – the ones that are feared.”

Nash took the stage and spoke directly to the future engineers in the audience, reminding them that engineering goes beyond what’s on paper. He told the group about how Canadian licensed engineers wear iron rings struck from a collapsed bridge to remind themselves what can happen if they fail.

“Not to scare you, but engineering is more than solving differential equations,” Nash said. “There is a human dimension to these cases.”

Russ College Associate Dean of Industry Partnerships Scott Miller lauded the speakers for proving how ethics education is pivotal for success in engineering.

“It’s important for us to give these students some real-world case studies and show how real engineers deal with real ethical dilemmas – how they ultimately succeed or fail based on their answers to these ethical questions.”

Chemical engineering junior Devin Dixon, who attended the talk, said it showed how there are many reasons to behave ethically that many don’t consider.

“There are lots of risks: loss of reputation, market share. So it’s better to just do it right and ethically the first time,” Dixon said.  

Jessica Morrow, also a chemical engineering junior, said she took away a great life lesson.

“It’s always worth it to stick up for what you believe in,” Morrow said. “Even if you’re standing alone, you should always go with what’s right.

You can view a full recording of Thursday’s lecture online, as well as a recording of a lecture given in the fall by West Virginia University’s Dr. Arvind Thiruvengadam, who was one of the researchers who uncovered the Volkswagen cheating scheme.