Data Analysis in the Engineering Ethics Study: Case 2

The Helmet Display (HD) team was another Senior Design Project (SDP) team that we observed. This team designed a “heads up” information display system for motorcycle helmets. By displaying necessary information such as speedometer and fuel gage in the visor of the helmet, the driver needs not frequently look down to the dashboard to check the information. The HD team expected that this system would help the driver in safe driving by reducing distractions.

During the discussion, the team discussed the safety issues, security issues, copyright issues, and possible environmental issues. The members of this team were particularly interested in legal issues such as patent issues. Also, this team largely relied on legal standards in solving potential ethical problems. For example, they mentioned that any danger related to users’ mistakes could be prevented if the exam for motorcycle drivers’ licenses was adequate to keep unqualified drivers off the road. They also mentioned that any environmental hazard related to their product could be prevented if they followed the applicable laws and regulations for environmentally safe materials.

blog_case2_HD team

The HD team held two discussions about the ethics issues involved in their project. On their second discussion, an ethics advisor joined. The ethics advisor was a student volunteer who was taking a philosophy of science and technology course. We (researchers) hoped that the ethics advisor could help the team explore various ethics issues. Unfortunately, the discussion went more likely a Q & A session. The ethics advisor mostly asked questions, and the HD team answered those questions. In the selected episode, the ethics advisor asked, “what if a driver relies so much on this helmet technology that he cannot drive without this helmet?”

blog_case2_ethics advisor

Here is the discussion segment.


To analyze this conversation, we (researchers) first identified a few types of meaningful keywords and highlighted them in different color. We marked ethically salient keywords in red, and design product keywords in blue. We noticed that the word “ridiculous” was said three times, so we marked it in green. How the team addresses others was also important, so we marked the word, “you” in purple, and the word, “someone” in orange. See the below.


We also added non-verbal expression in bold. See the below.


Again, we studied relationship among keywords, interpretive meanings in the discussion, team members’ gestures or any non-verbal expressions such as laugh, the team’s particular habit or way of talking, and any other noticeable clue. Based on them, we could find a few characteristics in this discussion.

First, the ethics advisor did not say anything about “not to design this helmet”, but the team automatically took the question as a challenge to the very existence of their design and tried to argue that the possibility asked in the question could not be a relevant reason to give up on their design. Overall, the team’s attitude and affect during the discussion appeared to be defensive and protective of their design.

“It’s ridiculous not designing this product because of possibility that someone forgets how to look at the dash , then you should say why….you know it’s ridiculous

Second, the team dismissed the problem suggested by the ethics advisor as minimal and unimportant, saying “it’s ridiculous” to consider it. In fact, the word, “ridiculous”, was mentioned three times in this selected episode. Overall, the Helmet team showed defensive, protective, and dismissive reactions toward the social implication question posed by the ethics advisor.

Third, the HD team seemed to think only in the designers’ perspective. Unlike the SRC team in the previous case, who addressed the users as “you”, the HD team addressed the users as the third party, such as “someone.” When the Helmet team used a word, “you”, it indicated themselves or other engineers, as seen in “You know it’s ridiculous”, and “You have to say okay.”

The team seemed to assume that questions not directly related to engineering, such as social implication questions, were unhelpful to their design, so they tried to defend their design from the (perceived) unfavorable opinions of non-engineers. There was no indication that the team might see the problem from the users’ perspective. Considering these results, the HD team seemed to think that issues not directly related to the technical requirements of engineering are irrelevant for their design, so they needed to protect their design from those irrelevant issues. We represented this relationship as a cultural model of the HD team’s engineering ethics understanding (see below).



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