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In February 2014 the auto manufacturer General Motors (GM) issued a recall of several models of vehicles produced between 2003 and 2007. The reason for the recall was a faulty ignition switch that could be easily bumped from the “run” position into the “accessory” position, causing the vehicle to stall and disabling air bags and other safety features. In the subsequent months, significant attention has been devoted to the 10-year span during which members of GM’s staff and leadership were aware of the faulty switch but failed to take action to address it. It is now known that the switch was a factor in dozens of serious accidents and at least 19 fatalities. An independent report commissioned by GM (Report to Board of Directors of General Motors Company regarding Ignition Switch Recalls, by A.R. Valukas, May 29, 2014) documents the individual and organizational lapses that prevented GM from properly addressing this defect and serves as another example of the need to emphasize engineering ethics within the corporate culture.


The ignition switch that would become the subject of this recall was plagued with problems almost from its origin. Intended to be less expensive and less prone to failure than the prior model, the prototype performed poorly in initial tests and ultimately required a complete electrical redesign. It was noted after the redesign that the new switch failed to meet GM’s mechanical specifications for torque in that less force was required to turn the key than was called for in the design. Incorrectly believing that this would not affect performance and fearing that further changes might cause even more problems with the electrical system, a GM design engineer approved the deviation from the specifications. This decision did not require review or approval by other GM personnel, and the engineer did not advise GM management of the deviation. Soon after vehicles equipped with the new switch hit the market, engineers at GM were made aware of problems created by the low torque. By 2004 GM had received numerous complaints from consumers reporting “moving stalls,” caused when an incidental knee brush or a heavy key fob pulled the ignition switch out of the “run” position while the car was in use. The issue was referred to a committee of GM engineers and managers for review, but that body decided that the problem was not a safety issue because drivers could still maneuver their stalled vehicles off the road. Proposed fixes were circulated among several GM committees, but each was ultimately rejected as being too costly to address a matter of “customer convenience.” None of the committees charged with reviewing the switch problem ever considered other systems that might be affected by the vehicle stall, including air bags designed not to deploy in the “off” or “accessory” positions so as to avoid deployment in cases involving a parked car. In situations in which the ignition switch jolted out of position during or immediately before an accident, the resulting stall prevented this crucial safety feature from engaging just when it was most needed. Even as reports accumulated at GM of cases in which air bags had failed to deploy in front-impact collisions, GM failed to make the connection between the ignition switch and the air bag failures. The air bag failures were viewed as a rare, if mysterious, issue, and investigation of the problem languished among a series of teams and committees operating without an express directive to conduct a thorough investigation of the failures. Meanwhile, outside reports making the crucial connection between the two problems did not reach the necessary hands at GM. A 2007 accident investigation linking air bag failure to the faulty ignition switch was transmitted to GM’s legal department, where it languished until just before the recall. Similar conclusions were reached in a university-funded study and other publicly available documents, yet there is no evidence that anyone at GM either sought out or was aware of this information. Further complicating GM’s understanding of the issue, the engineer responsible for the ignition switch approved a change in its design in 2007 to address the issue of low torque. However, he failed to let anyone know that the part had been modified. (He would later claim he had no memory of approving the change.) When GM investigators observed that air bag failures were occurring only in older models, they mistakenly concluded that the ignition switch could not be the source of the problem, believing that the same switch was still in use in the trouble-free newer models. These investigators, however, failed to make any direct examination of the ignition switches. Indeed, it was only when a plaintiff’s expert witness compared X-rays of the pre- and post-2007 ignition switches that the design change was finally revealed.


What ethical lessons can be drawn from the GM ignition switch recall? The engineers responsible for this defect were not professional engineers. Do you think that if they were professional engineers, their actions would have been different?






Members of The American Society of Civil Engineers conduct themselves with integrity and professionalism, and above all else protect and advance the health, safety, and welfare of the public through the practice of Civil Engineering.


Engineers govern their professional careers on the following fundamental principles:

•      create safe, resilient, and sustainable infrastructure;

•      treat all persons with respect, dignity, and fairness in a manner that fosters equitable participation without regard to personal identity;

•      consider the current and anticipated needs of society; and

•      utilize their knowledge and skills to enhance the quality of life for humanity.


All members of The American Society of Civil Engineers, regardless of their membership grade or job description, commit to all of the following ethical responsibilities. In the case of a conflict between ethical responsibilities, the five stakeholders are listed in the order of priority. There is no priority of responsibilities within a given stakeholder group with the exception that 1a. takes precedence over all other responsibilities. 1






a.    first and foremost, protect the health, safety, and welfare of the public;

b.    enhance the quality of life for humanity;

c.    express professional opinions truthfully and only when founded on adequate knowledge and honest conviction;

d.    have zero tolerance for bribery, fraud, and corruption in all forms, and report violations to the proper authorities;

e.    endeavor to be of service in civic affairs;

f.     treat all persons with respect, dignity, and fairness, and reject all forms of discrimination and harassment;

g.    acknowledge the diverse historical, social, and cultural needs of the community, and incorporate these considerations in their work;

h.    consider the capabilities, limitations, and implications of current and emerging technologies when part of their work; and

i.     report misconduct to the appropriate authorities where necessary to protect the health, safety, and welfare of the public.




a.    adhere to the principles of sustainable development;

b.    consider and balance societal, environmental, and economic impacts, along with opportunities for improvement, in their work;

c.    mitigate adverse societal, environmental, and economic effects; and

d.    use resources wisely while minimizing resource depletion.




a.    uphold the honor, integrity, and dignity of the profession;

b.    practice engineering in compliance with all legal requirements in the jurisdiction of practice;

c.    represent their professional qualifications and experience truthfully;

d.    reject practices of unfair competition;

e.    promote mentorship and knowledge-sharing equitably with current and future engineers;

f.     educate the public on the role of civil engineering in society; and

g.    continue professional development to enhance their technical and non-technical competencies.




a.    act as faithful agents of their clients and employers with integrity and professionalism;

b.    make clear to clients and employers any real, potential, or perceived conflicts of interest;

c.    communicate in a timely manner to clients and employers any risks and limitations related to their work;

d.    present clearly and promptly the consequences to clients and employers if their engineering judgment is overruled where health, safety, and welfare of the public may be endangered;

e.    keep clients’ and employers’ identified proprietary information confidential;

f.     perform services only in areas of their competence; and

g.    approve, sign, or seal only work products that have been prepared or reviewed by them or under their responsible charge.


5.    PEERS


a.    only take credit for professional work they have personally completed;

b.    provide attribution for the work of others;

c.    foster health and safety in the workplace;

d.    promote and exhibit inclusive, equitable, and ethical behavior in all engagements with colleagues;

e.    act with honesty and fairness on collaborative work efforts;

f.     encourage and enable the education and development of other engineers and prospective members of the profession;

g.    supervise equitably and respectfully;

h.    comment only in a professional manner on the work, professional reputation, and personal character of other engineers; and

i.     report violations of the Code of Ethics to the American Society of Civil Engineers.



1This Code does not establish a standard of care, nor should it be interpreted as such.