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The Ethics of Design - Is Tesla compromising their Ethics in favour of profit?

Article co-authored with Marco Marques and Simon Ker

Published on: www.designwakeup.com


It seems evident to many of us when we think of Design Ethics, right? Before continuing reading, let us invite you to think for a second about what ethics in design means. Does it seem more complicated to define than what you initially thought of?


Don’t worry - we felt the same.


You might have asked yourself the same question we did before, what does it mean? And how does design ethics manifest in the work we do?


In a world that is becoming ever more digitally connected with people relying increasingly more on online type services, it seems pretty apparent that the type of impact on them is not insignificant. This means that arguably, the negative consequences of these digital-type services can be the same or higher than the positives that it creates if not controlled or created with malicious intent.


What has this got to do with design? Designers in various industries have always had a critical role. From cars to door handles and anything you can probably imagine. They all require professionals who work in the design of these products. And with Web 2.0 and how technology is evolving makes people who work in creating the software essential, with higher standards of responsibility. Now, and to help you understand the broader definition of Designers in this blog article, it’s someone who participates in the design of the software, mobile application, or any other work-related activity involved in the building process of a product. These can also be people who work in the strategy definition - Strategy Designer - of the product, and not just someone who is a product designer, for example.


Hence, Designers are making small decisions now that will have significant impacts in the future. And to date, Ethics has not been a priority for many companies, but the topic is becoming popular. The small ethical decisions we make now will pay off in the future, and we think we should look at this as an opportunity to build an ethical landscape. As Richard Dawkins puts it in the afterword to his paper, "…one would hope legislation, or at least self-policing by organisations such as Facebook and Twitter, will follow. At present, these social media exult in their freedom of contribution as well as freedom of access. There's a minimum of editorial control, limited to censorship or gross obscenity and violent threats…". We need to do more in digital product design to safeguard the user.


A product is generally seen as something tangible like a lawnmower, but we need to focus on the less tangible side of product design; digital services, such as social media platforms, policies, and virtual digital goods (VDG's), gather data and ideas. These digital services do not have the same safeguards as physical products, such as policies and standards. These are complex systems with a complex product delivery lifecycle, and the ethical responsibilities of designers, clients and users should be a priority.


Ethics is integral to design and yet has remained severely underdeveloped and irrelevant. Many ethical issues and problems have surfaced from manufactured artefacts, which is true of current and emerging technologies. Jeffrey Chan proposes using 'technology', 'sustainability' and 'responsibility' as conceptual vehicles to understand Design, but what about 'accountability'? Even if we define, who should be responsible for ethics in Design, who will be accountable for future ethical issues and problems?.


There seems to be little governance in tech firms, which will most likely bite us in the future. Let’s look at the 2008 financial crisis as an example. The economic bubble burst in the USA in 2007 and extended to 2008, but the reality is the whole scheme or fraud, depending on what you want to call it, had started 20 years earlier. Lax financial regulations, banks' significant risk-taking, and the US housing bubble's bursting resulted in an international banking crisis. Arguably what happened back in 2007 could never have happened if proper governance controls were in place. Going back to Design Ethics in this digital era, we should probably remind ourselves that the internet and its users are not the same as 10-15 years ago. It has become more complex, and its footprint on our day-to-day life is much broader than before, and it will only continue to grow. Therefore, our approach to technology and product design is in dire need of an upgrade to its policies. Currently, and unfortunately, even the Government Design Principles on the gov.uk website do not mention ethical Design or accountability.

Informal policies and practices compensate for formal policies and practices. We think further research is needed to investigate the role of formal and informal policies and practices in shaping an ethical, sustainable, and practical innovation implementation.


The principles of ethical design

While we don't yet have a list of principles that companies follow, there are ones that consistently get named, like:

  • Beneficence - as designers, we have a moral duty to keep the end users' best interests at heart.

  • Non-maleficence - we have an obligation to inflict no harm on others.

  • Respect for autonomy - give a user independence in making decisions.

  • Test assumptions - Involve the users. Test with diverse groups of people

  • Privacy - only collect required personal information that is in the best interest of the users.

  • Accessibility - everyone should be able to use your product.

  • Transparency - provide transparency so that users can make informed choices.

  • System Thinking - we like to focus on the tool we're designing, but we can't fully understand the impact on the user without understanding the broader context - the user's world.

  • Sustainability - climate change is a global issue, and we should design with our planet's best interest at heart.

Design is a process of making choices. As a designer, you will be presented with a variety of options to choose from. Your job as a designer is to make the most informed choices possible while considering the constraints imposed by your client, the design brief, and the usability tests. This process requires an understanding of the ethical design principles and their implications.


As you continue your design career, you'll no doubt have opportunities to work on projects of all shapes and sizes. Some will be small and straightforward, while others will be large and complex. Regardless of the size or complexity, I hope you'll keep in mind the following ethical design principles whenever you encounter a design problem. They'll help you make sound ethical decisions and also help you shape your career into something meaningful and impactful.


As you develop your next big idea, don't forget to keep in mind these ethical design principles. They'll keep your products and services from being harmful and exploitative and help you build better products and services that might positively impact people and the world.


The Tesla Case

So what has Tesla got to do with Design ethics, and why did we want to talk about it? In 2017 Tesla announced the new and second version of the Tesla Roadster. Almost ten years after they released the first roadster, which was also their first car. The car was expected to be out to the public in 2020. Roadster reservations require an initial $5,000 credit card payment, plus a $45,000 wire transfer payment due in 10 days.


And in 2019, they announced the new cyber truck. For this one, you didn't have to advance as much money as for the Tesla roadster, 100 dollars was enough, and Elon Musk said he received over 250K reservations. In the end, if you change your mind, you could cancel the reservation, which would be refundable. And they expected the first units to be produced in 2021.


However, it's 2022, and we don't have either the Tesla Roadster or the Cyber truck in production to be released. So is Tesla fooling us all, and is the company being unethical? Or do they have a legitimate reason for the delays? Let's deep dive more into the overall.

Like other automotive organisations, Tesla has seen their operations at risk due to the chip crisis that started in 2020. You might ask, what has one thing got to do with the other? Okay, let's begin by explaining what a chip is. A chip is a network of electronic circuits embedded in a material made of silicon called a semiconductor. And the semiconductor carries electric current between highly conductive elements like metals and less conductive ones, like ceramics.


Think of it as mini-brains spread across the car that tells different hardware parts what to do electronically. Without chips, there are no vehicles, electrics or non-electrics. And the need for chips has increased since the pandemic, with people working from home and needing more computers and other consumer electronics.


We must remember that a traditional car typically has 300 to 1000 chips, whereas an electric one, on average, contains 3000 thousand chips. Ten times more than a standard vehicle sometimes.


Availability has also become tighter because of natural disasters that disrupted the supply chain and the resurgence of covid cases in regions that manufacture these chips. According to BBC, China, Taiwan, and South Korea are responsible for producing almost 90% of the world's chips. These were countries in areas most affected by both these natural cause disasters and the rise of Covid-19 cases.


Finally, Tesla had problems with the production of the Model 3. The output of the Model 3 almost led to Tesla's bankruptcy. Elon Musk has recently talked about how difficult it was to produce Tesla Model 3. It isn't easy to build an EV. But even with the problems faced with the Model 3, with production and logistics delays, it is now Tesla's most successful car.


Did Tesla compromise their ethics with the Roadster 2.0 and the Cyber Truck?

Well, even we at Design Wake-Up don't have a consensual answer.


On one end, we have Marco admitting that the macro factors contributed significantly to the delays we witness today and Tesla, putting the user at the centre of everything. Until today, even with a few delays, they have always delivered on their promise. And they are arguably helping the world become better and more sustainable.


If you've seen the 80's movie Tucker: The Man and His Dream, directed by Francis Ford Coppola and with Jeff Bridges in the leading role, you'll know the film talks about the story of a man who was an incredible inventor, instrumental during the second world war. And when the war was over, he decided to disrupt the automotive market. But Detroit's Automotive Big Three's were too powerful at the time. Too many favours had been rendered to politicians, and as a result, they managed to shut the Tucker company down, arguing a whole bunch of nonsense that proved all wrong.


In a way, I think there's political pressure to slow down Tesla, similarly to what happened with the Tucker company. Other companies will take years to catch up, and they know this. Still, I wouldn't be too surprised if, in the future, Tesla buys one of the old Detroit Big Three companies.


Simon doesn’t feel that ethics comes into the Tesla case. When it comes to Product, a balance must be struck between what is feasible, what is desirable and what is profitable.


In the Tesla case, those three elements are being balanced precariously. Desirability is there in full force! The fact that people are willing to pay for a product that is yet to exist is an excellent result for the initial step of validating a prototype. Now Tesla needs to, as mentioned in the Marques Brownlee video, “ship it” if they fail to do so, then we will see how this case plays out. It is still possible that Ethics will come into it. If they fail to ship and fail to refund, we will have a massive ethical issue on our hands. If, however, they fail to ship but refund their customers, the exciting thing will be how, or if, the business recovers.


Sam thinks the topic of design ethics is becoming more popular. She hopes that companies like Tesla will implement ethics in their user experience, which doesn’t start when they receive a vehicle but the moment they make “first contact” with the product. The small ethical decisions we make now will pay off in the future. Ethics in design is one of the most critical aspects of building a successful product. We have an excellent opportunity to make the ethical landscape for future products, and a company like Tesla would do well to embed ethical interventions in their processes.


So can we do more to make Design Ethics principles the norm rather than an option?

We think yes! Designers will increasingly be held accountable for design decisions, and we should take responsibility. James Liang, who wrote the software that VW used to lie about its emissions, went to jail for 40 months because the automotive industry is regulated. Therefore, companies like UBER insist that they are not an automotive company but a software company. Thanks to this, UBER does not fall under automobile industry regulations. (Monteiro 2019). And we don't think it should be that way. Why should a company collect and treat data beyond to make our life easier by creating a more seamless product to use and access? Or why don't companies send us a warning when a trial period is almost up to give us the option to make an informed choice if we want to continue with the membership?


The lack of clarity and policies in Design Ethics will continue to allow some companies to walk in a grey area without necessarily being held accountable. And even though we don't think we will see significant changes soon, we believe we should. But when these changes happen, and governments take action too, it will be a stepping stone for us to say with more confidence that we will be making comprehensive market products that are good for users, businesses and society.


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