Day’s Verse:
Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you are a listener when your are anything but, letting the Word go in one ear and out the other. Act on what you hear!
James 1:22

In her book Ethics in Engineering Practice and Research, Caroline Whitbeck proposes a hypothetical moral dilemma she calls “Risky Racing” in which a solar race-car team finds that its vehicle flips over when taking turns at moderate speeds. The team is loath to scrap its efforts, however, as it has $40,000 of their sponsors’ money on the project and have already bought the tickets to the Australian race. Their conundrum is based partly on the fact that they sold the idea to sponsors based on the car’s light design, and partly within the fact that the race occurs once every three years, making the current opportunity the only opportunity for many of the designers. This paper will identify the specific ethical issues and conflicts of interests in the case, discuss what outcomes are at stake, and explain my suggested solutions for this situation.

Ethical issues involved in “Risky Racing” come in several forms. First we must consider the issue of how ethically sound asking a driver to risk his or her life in the venture is when the team knows that racing is hazardous. Bringing the possibility up could be considered negligent because the driver’s assent could endanger his or her life, even if he or she accepted with full knowledge of the risks. The situation remains unclear as to whether the car’s designers are morally culpable should an accident occur.

Second, the issue of whether it is ethical to leave the car’s design alone must come under consideration. The team knows the vehicle is at least partially unsound under certain conditions, and enough time remains to modify the design. Since that is the case, should they be ethically compelled to modify the car to improve its safety?

If they choose to change the car’s design, then a third issue of sponsorship arises. Fixing the design “flaw” could mean increasing the weight to increase the safety, yet they attracted sponsors to support the project because of the car’s lightness. As a result, the issue of whether to inform sponsors of the design change, and if so, what to tell them, becomes an ethical issue to consider in this situation.

The problem of sponsorship due to the car’s lightness brings the team into a conflict of interest. The designers see that perhaps the vehicle’s weight makes the vehicle dangerous to drive, but on the other hand that very weight brought in funding, which they desire to retain. The project apparently cannot proceed without the funding, so keeping sponsors happy and money flowing is an issue when the parameters of the project change. The car’s designers find themselves forced to decide between money and safety.

Besides weighing funding and the driver’s life, the team is forced to decide between participation and safety. The students avidly desire to race the car and perhaps win prestige and glory for their school; for many, this race presents their only opportunity. Yet it would be unethical to consider racing in a vehicle recognized as high-risk, so it is clear that the car must be changed somehow to reduce the driver’s risk if they wish to race their car. Thus the problem to be solved involves maintaining the obligation to the sponsors, winning prestige through participating, and decreasing risk of driver injury.

There are several solutions for “Risky Racing.” First, the team could begin looking to improve other aspects of the vehicle besides adding weight. There are almost endless lists of choices that would allow them to keep their honor with sponsors regarding weight but that would also improve the car’s safety:

1. They could increase its traction by changing the tire type to one that grips the road particularly well.
2. They could modify the handling in some manner to make the vehicle more receptive to the driver’s motions, or, alternately, make the controls more fail-safe so that a panicking driver’s steering-wheel flailing would impact the car less.
3. They could work to lower the car’s center of gravity without modifying its weight at all, either by spreading its wheels farther apart or lowering the chassis closer to the ground.
4. They could add better seatbelts to hold the driver in place more securely, preventing her from being thrown from the car.
5. They could add roll bars so that if the car did flip over the driver would be better protected.
6. They could reinforce the car’s safety cage so that if it slid out of control it wouldn’t smash as easily.

The team has a moral obligation to investigate these and other design modifications in order to improve the car. To fail in this first step would ensure the team’s moral culpability should design-related problems occur during the race. The advantage of these options is that most of them add a negligible amount of weight and would increase the driver’s safety to varying extents. The disadvantages of these are that they cost money, may not make the vehicle safe enough, and some of them may take more time to design or implement than remains. These solutions would allow the team to keep faith with their sponsors, participate in the race, and improve safety.

Second, if none of the above options prove viable for one reason or another, the team could add a carefully determined “optimal amount” of extra weight to the car without changing the overall design. Perhaps a small addition of weight would not violate the sponsors’ expectations of a light vehicle, if the car remained lighter than the competitor’s entries. Adding weight would not be physically difficult to do, but it raises issues of what to do about the group’s funding.

Should that “optimal weight” change the car’s standing compared to competitors’ weights, or if that mass is still not sufficient and the group wants to add more, the team leaders should talk to the sponsors and explain the hazards involved. To solve the money-or-race problem, it is morally necessary to speak to the sponsors about funding, especially should any of the design plans change radically. This would give those sponsors the opportunity to withdraw their support if they feel the team’s safety modifications violate their reasons for funding, as well as receive a refund for their money. Then again, clarifying the situation for the sponsors may incline them to maintain funding the project despite the added weight. Probably the sponsors value safety as much as the team and would willingly accept improvements on the vehicle. Also, it might be possible to recruit other sponsors to replace any who withdrew their support. This option would allow the team to be honest and straightforward with their sponsors and improve the car enough to compete without endangering the driver’s life unnecessarily.

Third, they could not race the car. The driver’s life must come before all else. Withdrawing from the race would be by far the safest course of action, guaranteeing the safety of the driver and would avoid conflict with sponsors regarding changing the car’s weight. The students should consider this option seriously if they cannot implement other improvements. Although the team would lose its opportunity to race, it’s not worth risking a person’s life just so that the team can race. Human life is far more valuable than winning prestige for a school. This may bother the sponsors and stud
ents who hoped to participate, but it assures no lives would be unnecessarily lost.

The choices are to implement various design improvements that would satisfy sponsors, allow participation, and increase safety; to speak to the sponsors about adding weight to allow participation through increasing safety; or to not participate but absolutely guarantee safety. Morally the students must value protecting the driver above all else so that if the first two options fail, they must be willing to accept the third.

However, if weight issues plague the race in general, the race organizers should to reconsider the race parameters. This could include redesigning the race rules to implement either a weight limit determining the very lightest a vehicle participating in the race or require an independent safety review to confirm the car’s viability before the race began. This would be fair, safe, allow meaningful competition between solar-powered cars, and avoid forcing students into the difficult decision of choosing speed or safety. This would be a long-term solution for the problem that would help resolve all the issues at stake and remove the students from an unreasonably binding situation.

– KF –

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.