Engineering safety: our regulatory duty Posted

In the January/February edition of Innovation, APEGBC’s official magazine, association President and  Hedgehog Principal,  Michael Wrinch  offers his thoughts on safety, regulation and ethics.

Michael Wrinch

Michael Wrinch

As a designer of electrical systems, I am required to stay on top of the latest safety advances. The focus on safety pervades my work, as it does for all professional engineers and geoscientists. Given this, I was taken aback by an article recently published in MIT Technology Review, entitled “Why Self-Driving Cars Must Be Programmed to Kill.” The author explains that, before self-driving cars become widely accepted by the public, carmakers must address an impossible ethical dilemma. In other words, if a self-driving car is faced with an unavoidable accident with only two bad options—for example, either driving off a cliff or ploughing into a large group of people— it must be programmed to weigh options and choose the most appropriate action. Should it kill its passengers? Or collide with— and possibly injure or kill—a larger number of people?

Quite aside from the article’s sensational title, the described scenario represents the tip of an iceberg. What if the car’s algorithm knew the passengers’ health status, for example, and weighed that information against known demographics of the other potential victims? How would such information affect the outcome? As an ethical dilemma, the answer comes down to balancing divergent values. I expect, through public engagement, automakers—and society—will eventually arrive at an appropriate balance. But no matter how appropriate, it will be imperfect. At any time, some values will supersede others, and some interests will be protected at the expense of others.

A less extreme but equally challenging question of ethical and professional values faces APEGBC Council. As the group charged with governing the province’s regulatory body for engineers and geoscientists, we are required to make decisions that support APEGBC’s duty to protect the public interest. However, some such decisions may not always directly support the interests of individual members, Council and staff. Such problematic decisions may relate to membership entrance requirements and membership fees, practice reviews, disciplinary hearings, bylaw amendments, and even the current consideration of corporate regulation. Self-regulation occurs when a professional group enters into an agreement with government to formally regulate its members’ activities. Professional self-regulation enables government to control a profession’s practice and services without having to develop its own capacity and in-depth expertise that it would require if it regulated the professions directly. It is a common approach to professional regulation in British Columbia and in Canada. Self-regulation carries some benefits for professions, but the primary mandate—and guiding principle—is protection of public interest. To avoid conflict of interest, APEGBC Council relies on multiple sources of information and member engagement to attain the clarity needed to make good decisions.

Although we are not currently struggling with the challenges faced by engineering professionals who are developing self-driving cars, Council is dealing with similar ethical dilemmas: how to weigh what is truly public interest, and how to best implement change that protects future generations.

This article was published in Innovation Magazine, the official publication of the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of British Columbia, January/February edition 2016

Author: Dr. Michael Wrinch, P.Eng., FEC  President, APEGBC and Principal, Hedgehog Technologies