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Last Friday, the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) announced that it was planning to improve the way it keeps tabs on automakers and the safety of their products. NHTSA administrator Mark Rosekind admitted that the changes were largely inspired by his agency’s failure to catch the GM ignition switch problem early enough. The defective switches on older-model small cars such as the Saturn Ion and the Chevy Cobalt could accidentally cut power to both the engine and the vehicle’s airbags, and have been identified as the cause of over 100 deaths and 200 injuries that took place before a massive recall of some 2 million vehicles last year to fix the problem.

Rosekind acknowledged that although his staff had access to some of the data on the switch problem, they didn’t understand that the switch could disable the airbags, and so in two reports issued by the agency, there are calls for improved technological expertise and more investigators in the agency’s Office of Defects Investigation (ODI), which currently has about 60 full-time employees. The report calls for increasing that number to 150, and maybe more. Rosekind says that NHTSA has already undergone a “culture change” which relies less on the automakers to do self-policing and more on the agency to hold automakers accountable for producing needed data, and also for the agency to do more on-the-ground accident investigation itself.

The question here, as in any change of resources to address a problem with engineering implications, is: will it do any good? And will the good that might result be worth the resources expended?

As bureaucracies go, the NHTSA’s ODI is pretty small compared to the total number of non-military Federal goverment employees—about 2.7 million people in 2014. A few million dollars will give the NHTSA all they’re asking for and more. If you asked any of the relatives and friends of those 100 people who died because of defective GM ignition switches about this proposal, they would say the expenditure is worth it if it will save even one life in the future. And here we get to an issue that tends to come up a lot in discussions of engineering ethics: the monetary worth of a human life.

I’m not going to waste time playing with dollar/life quotients, because doing that means you have slipped into the never-never land of utilitarianism. The philosophical approach to happiness called utilitarianism is conveniently (if not entirely accurately) summarized by the phrase “the greatest good for the greatest number.” It has a sneaky kind of appeal to engineering types, because it holds out the (false) promise of reducing complex morally-freighted issues to a straightforward process of mathematical optimization.

I reject utilitarianism for a number of reasons. While it has limited usefulness in extreme cases—it tells you, for example, that placing the value of a human life at zero is unwise—the thing usually falls apart well before you can actually sit down with a calculator and do a mathematical operation that will tell you which of several alternatives in an ethical problem is the right one. It falls apart for me because the very act of putting a dollar value on a human life makes one no different in principle from the slave traders who did exactly that for profit. It is simply a thing not to be done.

Well, if we can’t make the situation into an optimization problem in mathematics, how should we decide if giving the NHTSA more bucks to hire more inspectors is a good idea? To begin with, a little background might be helpful.

The history of U. S. auto safety has been one of gradual but cumulatively remarkable improvement, starting with the adoption of safety glass in the 1920s by Ford Motor Company, and progressing to seat belts, air bags, and many other safety-related technologies, only some of which were federally mandated. The result of these improvements has been a pretty steady decline in deaths due to automobile accidents from a high of nearly 3 per 10,000 people per year in the 1930s to about 1 per 10,000 today. So to begin with, things are getting steadily better, and if self-driving cars realize their early promise, the operator errors and drunk-driving accidents that cause most crashes today may largely go away too. In the perspective of these numbers, while the 100 or so people who died in the GM switch accidents died needlessly, they were only 0.3% of the 30,000 or so people who died in auto accidents in each of the last few years.

Ironically, it looks like the public is less upset when a single bad guy can be identified as the cause of a fatal crash, than when the immediate cause is something mechanical like a weak ignition switch spring. This has nothing to do with mathematical optimizing of resources, and everything to do with how people perceive risk and danger. You get in your car and tool out on the highway. Maybe there’s a drunk driver out there, but you think you can do something about that. You can see him weaving around and steer out of his way, for instance. But some un-thought-of hidden mechanical defect like a defective ignition switch—there’s nothing you can do about that. It’s a lot scarier, and the news media know that, and the automakers know that. Which is why they have been highly motivated to avoid causes of safety recalls, and deeply regret the ones that slip through their own bureaucracies (as the GM ignition switch problem did) and cause only a few verifiable fatalities.

So what is the bottom line here? I think the bottom line is, there is no bottom line. This is not an accounting problem. Maybe three times as many investigators at the NHTSA will make the automakers three times as vigilant to catch the next major safety flaw before it gets built into millions of cars. While that would be nice, I doubt it will happen, and I don’t know of any objective way to tell whether it’s happened after it happens, if in fact it does happen. But the public has read in headlines that the feds are doing something about the problem, and that perception itself, rather than any meaningful actions that may happen afterwards, may have been the main point in this exercise.

Karl D. Stephan is a professor of electrical engineering at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas. This article has been republished, with permission, from his blog, Engineering Ethics, which is a MercatorNet partner site. He most recently blogged on the GM ignition switch issue on April 7, 2014 at http://engineeringethicsblog.blogspot.com/2014/04/the-gm-ignition-switch-recall-too.html


Karl D. Stephan received the B. S. in Engineering from the California Institute of Technology in 1976. Following a year of graduate study at Cornell, he received the Master of Engineering degree in 1977...