Sometimes a chance juxtaposition highlights an issue that needs to be addressed. One such popped up the other day in my International Herald Tribune. It published an obituary of Joseph Rotblat, a Warsaw-born nuclear physicist who made brief but important contributions to the creation of the atomic bomb at Los Alamos in 1944. An early advocate of the need for an Allied bomb to counter the one being worked on by the Germans, Rotblat quit the program ‘terribly shocked’ when he learned that work on the bomb was continuing even though it had been learned that the Germans had no such weapon, writes Karl Ludvigsen.

Subsequently based in England, Joseph Rotblat became an outspoken critic of the global nuclear-arms race. In 1955 he and ten colleagues issued a manifesto in London that declared that researchers must take responsibility for their creations. Said the Daily Telegraph, he ‘called on the creators of nuclear weapons to consider, without flinching, the implications of their discoveries.’ Citing the example of the atomic bomb and its devastation at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Rotblat argued that those who develop new technologies cannot do so in a vacuum, that they have an obligation to consider their consequences.

Adjacent to its report on Rotblat’s demise at the age of 96 my newspaper reported on Rome’s new programme of paving over 17th-Century cobblestones in the historic city centre. Rome’s 400,000 scooters find asphalt much more to their liking than slippery and bumpy cobbles. Nevertheless many in this beautiful city regret seeing the historic cobblestones sheathed by smooth black paving.

Asked his opinion of the controversial paving project, a Rome engineering professor equivocated. ‘I think it’s very difficult to balance the technical advantages and safety advantages with aesthetic advantages,’ he said. ‘Being an engineer, I prefer not to face this kind of problem.’

Here, separated by a fine black rule, were the alternatives that confront every engineer. He can hunker down in his cubicle and get on with the job, irrespective of the consequences of his creations for society, or he can act with an acute awareness and sense of responsibility for the systems and devices he creates. The Roman engineer preferred to abjure responsibility for a decision, leaving it instead to civic authorities and politicians. A Joseph Rotblat, in contrast, believed that it is incumbent on a creator to consider the consequences of his work and act accordingly.

Many human activities demand that engineers and scientists make such distinctions. Among them are architecture, civil engineering, food preparation and delivery and pharmaceuticals. And the motor industry. The industry in which we work and from which we earn our livings provides transportation of goods and people, to be sure, but at great cost. Directly in accidents our products kill more than a million people every year — that’s a 9/11 every day — and maim an estimated 50 million annually according to the FIA. Many more suffer from the effects of exhaust byproducts to an unquantifiable degree. Cars and trucks are major consumers of irreplaceable natural resources. The roadside ‘culture’ blights many urban areas.

In the broadest terms we have accepted these negative impacts of the motor vehicle in order to enjoy its flexibility and versatility. But increasing congestion and concern over atmospheric carbon dioxide threaten to curtail the use of vehicles, especially their access to city centres. Some carmakers are responding to the challenge with innovations such as hybrids, while others pin their hopes on diesels. Car owners are responding too, rejecting thirstier vehicles in favour of more rational alternatives.

What’s the role of the engineer in all this? In many auto companies he’s at the mercy of senior executives who have little understanding of the problems he faces and the contribution he can make. In others, often those run by engineers, he’s encouraged to bring his creativity — even, indeed, his judgement — to the party. Sometimes this has positive results for the customer and for the industry, as in the case of the championing of hybrids by Toyota and Honda. In other instances it has negative consequences, such as the ludicrous Bugatti Veyron, perhaps the ultimate example of motoring masturbation.

I understand that an engineer can’t refuse to work on a car like the Veyron or indeed the Ford GT, another ineffectual waste of natural resources. They may even find such design challenges interesting and rewarding. But they must be aware that they’re helping create a vehicle of spectacular uselessness and unprecedented menace to fellow road users. Though such über-sports exotics may be statistically insignificant, thus less likely to mow down very many other cars and indeed mainly vulnerable to single-car accidents, they’re clear evidence of a wanton waste of talent and resources by their producers — a waste of which the wider world will be all too aware.

I appreciate also that engineers will see it as their mission to probe the limits of their disciplines to make available new technologies that others will decide to use — or not. This is what the nuclear scientists at Los Alamos did, to the dismay of Joseph Rotblat and others. They created the atom bomb and left it to the politicians to decide whether and how to use it. Often the very existence of a technology will force through decisions to use it that will be seen later as misguided. A good example in our industry would be telematics, which have resulted in complex and costly installations that correspond in no way to what motorists really want and need. Systems are installed because they can be, not because they need to be.

The engineers among you will be well aware of other technologies that are being introduced for their own sake, not because they contribute to better or safer motoring. One that’s all too threatening is the ability to use GPS tracking to keep cars from exceeding the speed limit. Researchers at Britain’s Leeds University say they’ve developed the means to do just that. They’ve developed the ‘atom bomb’ of motoring; now the question is how to deploy it.

Officials seem to think that the only way such technology could be used would be to curtail car speed automatically. I beg to differ. One very effective way to use it would be to create a new type of instrument that shows the driver the relationship between his speed and the local limit. This would be far more effective as a means of helping the driver keep within the limits than the conventional speedometer. Another excellent option would be to increase accelerator-pedal pressure substantially when the local limit is exceeded. Thus would give the driver a clear indication that’s he’s over the limit while allowing him to use extra speed if conditions require it.

It’s not in our industry, but another example of technological tyranny is the plan of at least one airline to allow the use of mobile phones on board during flights. I can’t imagine a less desirable ‘advance’. Airline flights allow uninterrupted time for reading, working, quiet conversation and contemplation. The last thing we need is a jabbering seatmate, voice so loud that you wonder he needs a telephone at all. Here’s another example of something that’s being done because it can be, not because it should be.

I’m not knocking engineers. We desperately need their creativity. But they need to take a moral position somewhere between Joseph Rotblat and the Roman engineering professor. They’re increasingly obliged to monitor the objectives of their own work and its validity for the changing world of the 21st Century.

And if motor company executives are of a mind to pervert what their engineers have done, if they choose the less desirable solution from those on offer, they can be sure their gaff will be blown by an anonymous internet blog. As Microsoft is discovering (see, dissatisfied employees now have a safe way to vent their feelings about a company’s management and practices. The old days of corporate secrecy are gone for good. The opportunity for the company with a conscience has arrived.

– Karl Ludvigsen

Karl Ludvigsen is an award-winning author, historian and consultant who has worked in senior positions for GM, Fiat and Ford. In the 1980s and 1990s he ran the London-based motor-industry management consultancy, Ludvigsen Associates. He is currently an independent consultant and the author of more than three dozen books about cars and the motor industry, including Creating the Customer-Driven Car Company.