Human-Powered Vehicle; A Virtue Ethics Analysis of the Development of Boeing’s 737 MAX Aircraft

Lee, Thomas, School of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Virginia
Laugelli, Benjamin, EN-Engineering and Society, University of Virginia
Smith, Natasha, EN-Mech/Aero Engr Dept, University of Virginia

My technical project was to design and build Blue Comet, a human-powered vehicle, to compete in the 2020 ASME HPVC E-Fest North. Blue Comet is a tadpole recumbent tricycle constructed from AISI 4130 steel. It has an integrated rollover protection system (RPS) that protects the rider in the event of a crash, a removable transparent partial fairing to protect the rider from the environment and increase aerodynamic efficiency, and is able to reach speeds of over 35 mph. Road tests and commute scenarios have been conducted in order to ensure the viability of our design in the real world, and while we were not able to compete due to the COVID-19, our team is confident that our design is faster, safer, and more comfortable than conventional bicycles, cheaper than similar electrified options, and will instill a stronger appreciation and desire for sustainable transportation alternatives.

My STS research explores the Boeing 737 MAX crashes through the lens of virtue ethics in order to show that Boeing’s engineers and managers acted unethically during multiple stages of the plane’s development and certification. I argue that because their actions violated two fundamental virtues of ethical engineering and business, safety and honesty, they should be held morally responsible for the crashes. My paper explores this notion and discusses how, moving forward, companies and their employees must learn to better analyze decisions with a balance of technical, business, and ethical acumen.

Working on these two projects in conjunction has been a valuable learning experience for me. Although my technical work and my STS research are not strongly related, working on both projects at the same time has allowed me to better understand the ethical and technical dilemmas an engineer faces during his or her career. While every engineer strives to design the best product, circumstances outside of their control, such as schedule or cost, can force them to make difficult decisions. Had I not worked on the STS project, I would have been more focused on the mechanical design process of the vehicle and I would not have been able to reflect on the real-world consequences that each one of my actions hold. The STS project allowed me to take a step back and gain a new perspective on what we were building. Yes, we were building a human-powered vehicle, but we had to do so in an ethical manner if we wanted our product to succeed in the real world and inspire new innovations properly. The goal of the competition was to beat other teams in speed, endurance, and overall appearance, but our team couldn’t be too preoccupied with the design requirements and technical testing. We had to be diligent not to exploit loopholes in the competition’s regulations, cut corners because of schedule, or risk safety because of cost just to win the competition. I was able to reflect on the ethics of my decisions, such as whether buying a more expensive part to increase the factor of safety by a certain degree was worth it even if the current design was already acceptable. It allowed me to put myself in the shoes of the Boeing engineers, who from the outside look like incompetent villains, but in reality, faced difficult ethical dilemmas when designing the faulty 737 MAX planes. Working on the technical and STS projects simultaneously has taught me the importance of an engineer thinking not only technically, but also socially and ethically.

BS (Bachelor of Science)
Boeing 737 MAX, virtue ethics, human-powered vehicle

School of Engineering and Applied Science
Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering
Technical Advisor: Natasha Smith
STS Advisor: Benjamin Laugelli
Technical Team Members: Sungwoo Cho, Samantha Davis, Matthew Evanko, Yongyi Jiang, Brian Lembo, Kevin Meyers, Ian O'Donnell, Dana Poon, Geoffrey Shellady, Christopher Wilks, Pat Wongwiset

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