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Ethics in the Classroom: The Volkswagen Diesel Scandal

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2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


New Orleans, Louisiana

Publication Date

June 26, 2016

Start Date

June 26, 2016

End Date

June 29, 2016





Conference Session

Case and Scenario in Engineering Ethics Instruction

Tagged Division

Engineering Ethics

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Paper Authors


Elisa L. Warford University of Southern California

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Elisa Warford is a senior lecturer in the Engineering Writing Program at the University of Southern California, where she teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in written and oral engineering communication. Her current research interests include the rhetoric of science and portrayals of engineering and technology in American literature. She is also a professional technical editor specializing in engineering writing for academia and industry. She holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of Maryland.

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Given ABET’s criteria for ethics education and the professional responsibility of engineers to uphold reasonable standards of ethics, some form of ethics education in the engineering curriculum has become standard in engineering schools. While a microethics case study approach is common in the classroom, some researchers have called for greater emphasis on a macroethics approach, which emphasizes broader ethical questions about technology in society rather than questions about individual professional responsibility. This paper presents a case study, written by the author, used to discuss a macroethics issue related to the 2015 Volkswagen diesel scandal. The case study uses the Volkswagen case to highlight the possible ethical dilemma between the need for greater public and researcher access to vehicle software code versus the automobile manufacturers’ desire to keep the code proprietary. The paper applies the utilitarian, justice, virtue, and rights frameworks to the case, and shows how students can use the frameworks to analyze a range of ethical dilemmas and to better understand the broad ethical implications of open-source software, including questions about software vulnerability disclosures, intellectual property, and public safety. The paper presents an excerpt from a student paper demonstrating the learning outcomes of the case study exercise. The full text of the case study is included as an appendix.

Warford, E. L. (2016, June), Ethics in the Classroom: The Volkswagen Diesel Scandal Paper presented at 2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, New Orleans, Louisiana. 10.18260/p.26741

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