Students Debate Autonomous Vehicles With Help From New Mexico Society

May/June 2018

NSPE Today
Students Debate Autonomous Vehicles With Help From New Mexico Society

Debate Topic: Driverless Cars – Policy Issues
Round 1: Ethics
  • Team 1—Driverless cars are safer than cars with drivers.
  • Team 2—Driverless cars are more dangerous than cars with drivers.
Round 2: Economics
  • Team 1—Driverless cars are cheaper and more efficient than driven cars.
  • Team 2—Driverless cars are costlier and less efficient than driven cars.
Round 3: Legal
  • Team 1—The use of driverless cars should be legalized.
  • Team 2—The use of driverless cars should not be legalized.
Round 4: Oversight
  • Team 1—Driverless cars should be treated as normal cars.
  • Team 2—Driverless cars should be treated as its own form of transportation.
Round 5: Final Round
  • Team 1—Driverless cars should be allowed.
  • Team 2—Driverless cars should not be allowed.

Autonomous vehicles and their ethical, legal, and oversight issues are being debated around the country, and engineering students are among those participating. At New Mexico Tech, a STEM-focused institution south of Albuquerque, the debate was literal.

A competition in March sponsored by the New Mexico Society of Professional Engineers and the school’s vice president of academic affairs allowed students to think through the pros and cons of autonomous vehicles for cash prizes.

The competition was conceived and organized by Ashok Ghosh, P.E., vice president for education on the New Mexico Society board of directors and associate professor in the school’s mechanical engineering department. Ghosh is the liaison between the school and the society, which aims to ensure connections with educational institutions throughout the state.

In addition to providing $1,500 of funding, the New Mexico Society supplied three judges, including Executive Director Deanna Trujillo. The judges traveled about 75 miles each way for the competition. “Youth outreach is probably the top of our priority list,” Trujillo emphasizes.

The funds, along with an additional $2,000 Ghosh raised from the school, went into the three prizes shared between the two-person teams: $1,200 for first place, $800 for second, and $400 for third.

The debate rules required the two students on each team to come from different engineering or science disciplines, mirroring both the interdisciplinary nature of the New Mexico Society and the profession as a whole. Fourteen teams from 12 different science and engineering disciplines participated.

As Ghosh explains, the debate format enabled students to learn about a topic of societal relevance while practicing skills in research, logical reasoning, persuasion, and oral communication. These are invaluable, he notes, in students’ formation as engineers.

Top prize went to husband and wife team Jonathan Kidner (mechanical engineering) and Ria Kidner (chemistry). Participating in the debate was an opportunity to do something different related to their future careers, the students explain. As Ria Kidner says, “Coming from a scientific environment where we all spend a lot of time learning how to make things work and overengineer things, it was interesting to have a debate where we ask should we do this?”

In each round, the teams gave an opening statement, a rebuttal, a closing statement, and a rebuttal. A coin flip determined which side the teams would argue, and they were given only 30 minutes to prepare, forcing them to be prepared to support either one.

Teams earned points for speaking ability, arguments, and good behavior toward their opponents.

The debate took place about a week after the first fully autonomous vehicle fatality in Arizona. The incident, which was mentioned in multiple rounds, spotlighted the importance of wrestling with these issues.

Both the New Mexico Society and New Mexico Tech said the debate was highly successful and they plan to continue it next year. Ghosh wants to increase publicity and involve judges from industry. The topic is still to be determined.

Trujillo is looking forward to continuing, and possibly increasing, the New Mexico Society’s support for the event. She calls the students “outstanding,” “professional,” and “really passionate,” adding she was proud to see them put to work the skills they’ve been learning. “Those are our future engineers.”

Watch a video of the final debate round at