Ethics has an underrated role in science and engineering. When the Challenger exploded despite advanced knowledge that booster rocket seals could fail in a cold weather launch, that was a clear-cut failure of engineering ethics. While it may be fortunate that every ethical failure doesn't end with a billion dollar rocket exploding with 5 people inside, some that go less noted are even more damaging. I recently watched a documentary of such a failure, "Who Killed The Electric Car?" It turns out I did. And so did you.
The short version: California passed a law in the late 90's requiring a certain percentage of all vehicles sold in California to be zero-emissions vehicles. Faced with fighting the law or complying, American car companies decided to do both. So, while taking the state to court, GM also developed and started leasing the EV1. Other companies began following suit. However, when George W. Bush won the White House, the car companies were able to get the federal government to back them in their lawsuit against California; the state finally caved and scrapped the law. Rather then continue marketing and developing the electric car, which could potentially eat into sales of gas-guzzling, high margin SUVs, GM stopped production, recalled all vehicles when the leases ended, and crushed them into cubes. You have 30 minutes to move your cube.
The irony? The Toyota Prius and Honda Insight hybrid vehicles were a direct result of the Japanese companies playing catch-up to a perceived threat from electric vehicles coming out of Detroit. Instead, the short-sighted brass at GM squandered its technological and development head start with electric vehicles. Now, gas will hit $4 per gallon this summer, "An Inconvenient Truth" is an Oscar-winner, and the Prius is a best-seller.
Instead of acknowledging the necessity of reducing carbon emissions, improving air quality, reducing oil imports from middle eastern autocracies and developing a lead in new technologies, American auto companies spent their money on lawyers and on marketing SUVs to soccer moms in the suburbs, all with the White House's backing.
When the Challenger exploded, the scientists had told NASA management that O-ring seals could fail before the launch took place. Canceling the launch took managerial courage which they did not have. GM could have shown that same courage by sacrificing some short-term profits and pursuing their head start in electric car technology. Remember, not every technical failure is a result of bad engineering, and not every failure ends with an explosion. Don't let this failure slip by you unnoticed just because there is no fireball. If a car company had the vision (and there is one that does
) you could be driving an all-electric car to work tomorrow at a fraction of the environmental and economic cost.
I killed the electric car when I didn't apply my technical skills to solving the problems, but instead worked on fuel cells. You killed it when you bought an SUV, or thought an electric car couldn't meet your needs, or if you are Alan Lloyd
. Thanks, us.