Why We Do Not See a Licensed Automobile Engineer?
The other day, a reader of my blog: Benefits of Obtaining PE Chemical License
queried, "The NCEES1
states that practicing engineering with an engineering license assures the protection of health, safety, and welfare of the public, so why has the NCEES not instituted a Principles and Practice of Engineering (PE) Examination for the automobile engineer (or the aerospace engineer)?"
This question stumped me and I decided to attempt to answer it through research of my own, rather than delegating it to the NCEES.
NCEES List of Sixteen
The NCEES has instituted the PE exam in the following sixteen engineering disciplines (Ref. 1):
Agricultural and Biological Engineering, Architectural Engineering, Chemical, Civil, Control Systems, Electrical and Computer, Environmental, Fire Protection, Industrial and Systems, Mechanical, Metallurgical and Materials, Mining and Mineral Processing, Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering, Nuclear, Petroleum, and Structural.
Thus, we have the traditional engineering disciplines (e.g., Civil), the newer engineering disciplines (e.g., Environmental) and niche disciplines (e.g., Agricultural and Biological), specialty disciplines that have branched out from the traditional (e.g., Petroleum), and disciplines that already have their own independent professional organization (e.g., Architectural Engineering).
According to Larry Jacobsen of NSPE2, four categories of industries: pharmaceuticals, bioengineered food, deep-water oil and gas drilling, and nuclear power generation pose dangers that are not contained by an event. The danger attributed to an engineering error can perpetuate without end (Ref. 2). Therefore, we see NCEES has PE licensure in the niche discipline like Agricultural and Biological Engineering, and specialized disciplines like Nuclear Engineering and Petroleum Engineering.
But, as observed by my reader, we do not see the specialty discipline of automobile engineering in the NCEES' list of sixteen.
What about the PE license for automobile engineering?
Going back to the history of licensure as documented in my blog Professional Engineering Licensure - History and Evolution (schoolofpe.com)
, since the 1920s, the state (if in the US) assumes the authority to formally grant the permission to an individual to offer professional engineering services by issuing him or her the Professional Engineering (PE) license. With each state board taking up the reins of registering its engineers and to resolve the issue of the out-of-state acceptance of engineer registrations, the state boards standardized the inter-state registration of engineers, either by comity or reciprocity through the NCEES.
An automobile engineer will use his or her skill set in the design and manufacture of automobiles, which are sold and driven across state lines and international boundaries. The automobile engineer may practice his or her discipline in Detroit, Michigan (as an example) but is responsible for a consumer product (i.e., an automobile) that can impact "health, safety, and welfare of the public" outside of the location where the engineer practices. It is impractical for the US automobile engineer to be registered across all the 50 states of the USA (and for that matter, internationally). Therefore, the specialty discipline of automobile engineering does not require PE licensure by "industry exemption." This means that when exact rules vary between states, the industry exemption relieves work performed within a manufacturing plant from the necessity of complying with state engineering licensing laws, when its products cross state lines (and by extension the international boundaries).
Exemptions to Engineering Licensing Laws...What Can Happen?
Every state in the USA that grants the PE licensure also grants industry, manufacturing, and governmental exemptions to engineering licensure laws. Many states' engineering laws also contain additional exemptions for certain types of functions and activities and can be subject to interpretation by the state's attorney general or the court.
The NSPE, since its founding in 1934, has sought to address exemptions in state and territorial engineering licensure laws defined under the NCEES Model Law and Rules. A state-by-state survey of the exemptions is found in a 2016 report by the NSPE (Ref. 3).
Utilities is one of the industries in some states that does not require PE seals on its engineering documents, even though a public utilities company will have civil, mechanical, and electrical engineers in its ranks.
On September 13, 2018 in the city of Lawrence, MA, a natural gas explosion and subsequent fire resulted in one fatality and hospitalization of 21 people. It also caused the destruction of five homes and 131 structures affecting as many as 1,000 people.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), who investigated the incident, consulted with the NSPE and found that the utility company's "industry exemption" for PE licensure of its design and construction documents was partly to blame for the tragic incident. A constructability review, which outlines any deficiencies that are identified, resolved, and approved by a licensed PE in many jurisdictions, was not conducted for the project at Lawrence, MA.
The NTSB report "...recommended that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts end the PE license exemption for utility work and require a PE's seal on public utility engineering drawings." This recommendation was immediately followed and on Dec. 18, 2018, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker signed emergency legislation that requires a licensed PE to approve plans for the construction, operation, and maintenance of natural gas infrastructure (Ref. 4).
The rigorous quality assurance and quality control in the engineering design and industry-scale manufacture of automobiles combined with the continuous improvements implemented in the automobile manufacturing processes is widely understood to compensate for the delivery of a safe and quality consumer product (automobile) that conforms to the prevailing guidelines for protecting "health, safety, and welfare of the public." The prompt, well-advertised, and diligent product recall process in the USA mitigates any potential negative impacts from a consumer product that is out for public use.
However, within less than a decade, Apple, Google, Daimler, Uber, and Lyft are inevitably trending towards driverless automobiles, expected to be a $2 trillion market worldwide. We in the engineering community need to decide where to put the checks and balances on the use and dependance on Automation and Artificial Intelligence-based driving. Is a traditional, time-tested PE the answer, or is another approach warranted to ensure public safety?
We do not find automobile engineering as a discipline in the NCEES list of sixteen engineering disciplines for the PE because this discipline/industry is covered under the "industry exemption". As stated by Larry Jacobsen of NSPE "...while lots of licensed professional engineers design all manner of instrumentalities for exempt industries, they don't have to go so far to take personal responsibility, as they would if they had to sign and seal the documents with the registration number issued to them by a state licensing board." (Ref. 2).
An automobile engineer, however, can qualify him or herself to be a PE in any of the applicable PE divisions, like mechanical/electrical and computer/controls systems.
It is noted that the use of industry, manufacturing, and governmental exemptions is a serious matter and quickly devolve into a slippery slope. Therefore, the NSPE recommends a re-visit (and potential phasing out) of industry exemptions in the state licensing laws, (Ref. 5). We will hear more on this topic in the coming years-stay tuned.
1. Engineering Licensure - NCEES.
2. Industrial Exemption or Exclusion? Larry Jacobsen; NSPE, PE Magazine, May 2011.
3. Exemptions to Engineering Licensure Laws: A State-by-State Summary, NSPE, August 2016.
4. Massachusetts Ends Licensing Exemption After Explosion, Danielle Boykin; FBPE, April 2019.