Featured case: Autonomous Vehicles:
Technological Changes and Ethical Challenges

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The case

Who – the protagonist

Mary Barra, General Motors CEO.


Mary pledged GM’s commitment to Super Cruise, a semi-autonomous technology that allows for hands-free driving, which would be fitted into a new Cadillac the manufacturer was developing.

Like Tesla’s Autopilot system, Super Cruise would automatically keep the vehicle in lane, make steering adjustments, and regulate steering and braking.


Cadillac’s sales dropped 6.5% between 2013 and 2014 and GM were desperate to restore the brand, as they looked towards appealing to a new, younger audience.

With autonomous vehicles a hot topic, GM set their eyes on the Super Cruise technology featuring in the Cadillac CT6 model in the fall of 2016.


Mary unveiled GM’s semi-autonomous vision in September 2014 but by the summer of 2016 there was a rethink.

The Super Cruise technology had been rigorously tested and seriously impressed journalists on demonstration drives, but concerns had been raised about drivers potentially misusing semi-autonomous technology, not helped by a Tesla enthusiast being the victim of the first death in a semi-autonomous vehicle in May 2016. The legal and regulatory environment for the technology was a minefield too.


Mary delivered the speech at the 2014 Congress of the Intelligent Transportation Society in Michigan.

Key quote

“Rest assured, Super Cruise will keep drivers alert and engaged, and when they want to take control, they’re going to find a car that’s really fun to drive.” Mary Barra, General Motors CEO, speaking in 2014.

General motorsWhat next?

$12billion had been invested to reinvigorate the Cadillac brand and with the new model year rapidly approaching, GM and Cadillac executives needed to find a way to determine Super Cruise’s future.

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Autonomous Vehicles: Technological Changes and Ethical Challenges
Ref SCG-545
Teaching note
Ref SCG-845

The authors

Jacqueline Orr, Ali Abbas and Jeremy Dann

Jacqueline and Jeremy discuss the appetite for ethical discussion amongst students, the hot topic of autonomous cars plus much more.

On trend

Jacqueline said: “I was compelled to develop this case for a variety of reasons.

“My husband is a legal expert in emerging technologies, and as we discussed the case events of 2014-2016 in real time, my mind immediately jumped to the ethical and strategic business issues that accompanied the legal predicaments with which he was concerned.

“This was an interesting narrative for me to write about because the dilemma exists at the intersection of business ethics, the law, and social impact. I think this case is a great, relevant opportunity to infuse ethics into business and engineering classrooms.”

Jeremy added: “For me, this case is exciting because it can be that common ground for discussion between students of business and engineering and probably even law, public policy and design. Of all the cases we’ve developed in our entrepreneurship case programme, this one lends itself most strongly to that multidisciplinary discussion approach, since it’s a big story.”

Highlighting ethical and legal issues Highlighting ethical and legal issues

Jacqueline continued: “A lot of people are talking about autonomous cars, but not enough are talking about the ethical or legal considerations of releasing this technology.

“Fewer people are talking about the dilemmas that arise with the type of semi-autonomous technology described in the case.

“This case and its teaching note are also unique in that they explore the multiple dimensions of competing priorities for automakers, and some of the reasons behind the vastly different approaches taken by companies such as GM, Waymo, and Tesla.

The need to discuss ethics

Jeremy commented: “It’s becoming obvious to me you can’t teach entrepreneurship courses and corporate entrepreneurship without providing the opportunity for deep discussions of ethics. 

“When I teach corporate entrepreneurship, there’s always plenty of talk about what can be done: the advances in technology, the changes in business models, the creation of new categories. 

“But there definitely needs to be a layer dealing with what should be done. This will be important in so many industries — in sectors such as pharma, biotech, e-commerce, media and advertising —
and in this instance, transportation. When you push the boundaries of technology you will almost inherently push the boundaries of our current ethical understandings.”

Excitement in the classroomExcitement in the classroom

Jacqueline concluded: “Students are very excited to discuss this case; everyone has an instinctive reaction to the idea of a roadway filled with autonomous cars.

“The classroom discussion is fun because it pushes boundaries – students quickly realise that this isn’t a black and white issue. The case encourages students to think through dilemmas from ethical, legal, and strategic angles and helps them differentiate between these three thought processes.

“A major theme of conversation focuses on whether releasing semi-autonomous technology would save lives lost to vehicle crashes: Elon Musk stated that releasing Tesla’s semi-autonomous Autopilot was a “moral imperative” but some researchers warned that consumers were likely to misuse such technology in potentially fatal ways.”

About the author

Jacqueline Orr is a Research Scholar at the USC Marshall Brittingham Social Enterprise Lab and the Lloyd Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies. She is also a management consultant focused on social impact at NPO Solutions.

Ali Abbas is Professor of Industrial and Systems Engineering and Public Policy at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering and the USC Price School of Public Policy. He is also Director, Neely Center for Ethical Leadership and Decision Making.
e aliabbas@usc.edu

Jeremy Dann is Lecturer in Entrepreneurship and Director of the Case Program at the USC Marshall Lloyd Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies. 
e jdann@marshall.usc.edu


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