May 2007

photo of a laptop computerThe Effects of Advancing Technology on PE Practice and Regulation

Board Member Gaye Garrison Sprague recently gave an address on the topic of technology and its impact on the practice of engineering and surveying. Reprinted below is the text of her speech.

The Effects of Advancing Technology on PE Practice and Regulation


Advances in technology have brought many benefits to the practice of engineering, but they also have brought some challenges to all of us and particularly to those of us involved in the regulation of the profession. The purpose of this talk today is not to be an official statement of Registration Board policy because my fellow Board members have not reviewed what I am saying today. The purpose is to raise some issues, shares some thoughts, and get your thoughts on some of these challenges.

A couple of times during this presentation, I'm going to refer to proposed legislation. That is legislation now in the House and Senate which would make changes to the engineering and surveying statutes and which primarily addresses phasing out the existing Category B engineer in South Carolina. There are a few other changes here and there, such as the definition of "direct supervision,” which is one of the issues I'll address today.

Advances in Technology

I hate to date myself, but in my first job we did not have word processing. In order to make changes on a typed page, the secretaries would retype the revised paragraph, cut it out, and paste it over the original paragraph on the original page. That's quite a different idea of cut and paste from the cut and paste in today's word processing programs in which we highlight sentence, paragraphs, or even entire documents and with two or three clicks, insert them seamlessly into the revised original.

At my second job, I designed bridges and drew individual rebar at a drawing table with a cross bar, scale, and pencil. Excruciating does not describe the tediousness of that task. Today's CADD programs accomplish the same task with the click of a mouse.

Our drafting classes in college taught us to draw three dimensional perspectives that now, with the entering of a few coordinates, are drawn by the computer. Also, the people operating the computers are not always engineers. They are often CADD specialists much like the drafters of my early career.

The capacity analyses that I did in my third job were pretty simplistic because the calculations were done by hand. Today, we consider factors such as the interference of pedestrians crossing the cross street, the effect of upstream signals, and clearance times down to the tenths of seconds because the calculations are done by computer programs. The incredible computing abilities of today's machines allow us to more accurately reflect the interaction of the variables that go into engineering analyses.

We have the ability to be more productive, to be more detailed in our analyses, and to give more emphasis to design issues than to drawing and document production. Whether we are more productive, more detailed, and more attuned to engineering issues is another matter for another day. The point is that advances in technology have given us the ability to better assure the health, safety and welfare of the public we serve.

With those advances, however, have come challenges to the practice and regulation of our profession. At every turn there seems to be a new issue regarding the application of a new technology. While some of the issues seem too complex to address, the bottom line is insisting on the accountability of the engineer in safeguarding the public's health safety and welfare.

Direct Supervision

With the current capabilities of electronic transmissions, engineering drawings can be worked on at remote locations, emailed to the responsible engineer, commented on by that engineer, and emailed back to the production people. So, here's the question. Can an engineer in Greenville, South Carolina, really directly supervise work being done in India? Can an engineer in Greenville, South Carolina, directly supervise work done in Columbia? For that matter, can an engineer on the 10th floor of a corporate office directly supervise work done on the second floor?

The answer is, "It depends.” What it depends on, of course, is the engineer supervising the work. The engineer must maintain "direct responsibility,” direct supervisory control,” "direct supervision,” or "responsible charge,”—terms used interchangeably in South Carolina. They all mean that the licensee exercises sufficient personal supervision, direct control, and final decision making that he or she can be and is held responsible for the professional quality of work. The definition we have used in the proposed legislation is "a clear-cut personal connection to the project or employee supervised, marked by first hand knowledge and direct control and assumption of professional responsibility for the work.” So, the answer is, an engineer can directly supervise work if the supervision given meets this definition. We have to be consistent in the answer whether the person being supervised is downstairs or across the ocean.

Using Drawings Produced by Others

Today many clients insist that drawings be submitted electronically, and clients have the ability to scan and print out entire drawings. This availability of an engineer's work in electronic form raises the challenge of how to use drawings that have been paid for by the client but which contain work by other engineers.

May you scan a drawing owned by your client and make changes as long as you are sure that the original engineer was paid for his services? May you use an electronic drawing as the base of a new drawing?

Once again, the emphatic answer is, "It depends.” It the drawing represents a project which has been built, you may use the drawing as a representation of existing conditions as long as you confirm that the conditions shown on the plan are existing. For good measure, some reference to the source of the original drawing should be made.

If the drawing is of a project which has not been built, sorry, the new engineer just can't use it. The new engineer has to generate a new drawing and new design if any changes are made. Of course there will be nuances to every rule, but in general, you have to start over if the element of the project shown on the plan is not built and has to be changed.

Here's the latest wrinkle: Just last week, a fabricator asked an engineer for CAD drawings to use as background for their erection drawings. We were asked if it is acceptable practice to give fabricators or other vendors such copies for their use. We have not yet responded.

Electronic Signature

South Carolina has enacted the Uniform Electronic Transactions Act. It generally recognizes the legality of electronic signatures between private parties—if they both agree to recognize them. It also authorizes government agencies to recognize electronic signatures based upon satisfactory security procedures. In the proposed legislation, one of the changes considered was allowing electronic signatures for surveys. The pros and cons will not be discussed here, but suffice it to say that the surveying community would have none of that. They feel that it is still important that records of land boundaries be as secure as possible - that means that even with today's technology, records of land boundaries will be on paper, signed, and sealed.

The proposed legislation does not speak to engineering drawings and reports, therefore, the Uniform Electronic Transaction Act rules and allows these documents and the signatures on them to be exchanged electronically if supported by proper security technology.

What is Surveying and What is Not?

The advent of the handheld GPS unit is a great benefit to many in our society. My son takes his out on Hartwell Lake in his little fishing boat and he can leave virtual breadcrumbs to find his way back from anywhere he may roam on that big expanse of water. However, when someone who is not a registered surveyor uses a handheld GPS unit to note coordinates of, say, the outline of a wetlands area, can that person expect a registered surveyor to use those coordinates to generate a plat of those wetlands? No. A plat is a plat and it has to be surveyed by a registered surveyor. To ask a surveyor to used coordinates generated by somebody not under this direct supervision is to ask that surveyor to break the law.

Today's earth moving machinery is also equipped with GPS units, and the elevation of the bucket of a backhoe can be read in the cab of the backhoe in the field. Can the read outs of these units be used for construction staking? Here's what the North Carolina Board said:

The development of electronic data such as templates, cross sections, Digital Terrain Models, etc;, to be used for the purposes of earthwork grading and stake-out is within the definition of the practice of land surveying and engineering and shall be done under the responsible charge of a Professional Engineer or Professional Land Surveyor.”

One of our dedicated Board members polled several other states and found that they generally had not been confronted with the issue or had generally agreed with the North Carolina opinion. He found that our regulations supported these opinions:

  1. Data acquisition and development of topographical data (a 3D Model) in South Carolina is a function of the engineer and surveyor.

  2. Development of design of a site grading plan (topographical date or 3D Model) is also the functions of an engineer and/or surveyor.

  3. Therefore, in South Carolina, the engineer and/or surveyor should be the ones in responsible charge putting these on the ground—construction staking.

Electronic Newsletters

This is a minor point, but worth noting in a discussion of changes in regulating the profession. The S.C. Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, under which our Board falls, no longer allows paper newsletters to licensees. The newsletter is posted on the website only. Therefore, matters of discipline and changes in regulation are no longer presented directly to you via a paper newsletter in your mailbox. You must go to the website and get the newsletter to get this information.

Testing Security

When I took the PE exam, we worked four problems in the morning and four in the afternoon. Each problem was worked out on the answer sheet and graded individually. It would have been difficult to see enough of another person's work to cheat on the exam. For instance, when I took the exam, the young man seated next to me asked me after lunch, "Was there anything written on your paper when you turned it in this morning?” To which I replied, "Well, of course. Why.” He said, "Because I think you erased more than you wrote.” He obviously could not see my paper because I did have something written there and did pass the exam although there was not one single traffic engineering problem on the test. I am still pouting about that.

Under that format, every solution of a single problem was graded by a limited number of graders. Therefore, there was some human check of the potential for cheating on the exams. Today, however, both the FE and the PE are multiple choice exams, taking advantage of the efficiencies of scanner grading. Unfortunately, the potential for cheating on these exams is higher than the potential on the former format.

The foundation of any engineering and surveying licensure act is that three-legged stool: education, experience, and exam. Although there is some room for misrepresentation of a candidate's education and experience, these two efforts take several years and involve multiple references and supervisors/educators, and it is unlikely that out and out cheating can occur in these areas. For the exam requirement for licensure, however, the opportunity for cheating and collusion is there. Those who pass an exam because they cheated and not because they are minimally competent may obtain registration without being minimally competent and are a threat to the health, safety, and welfare of the public. Here's the cliché question: Would you want a doctor who cheated on his Boards to do your open heart surgery?

Although there are other important issues regarding exam security which can be discussed in another article, the issue of minimum competence is the most important, and it is this minimum competence that should be tested in the FE and PE. To that end, the National Council of Engineering Examiners has sought ways to identify those who have not passed these tests with their own knowledge. The latest tool the Council has developed is a computer program which compares the right and wrong answers of test takers and determines with three different methods when there is a high probability that there was cheating. These comparisons can only be made cost effectively with the sophisticated abilities of today's computers.

When state boards receive information that certain candidates MAY have cheated, the Board members must investigate and make a determination based on evidence and testimony by the exam candidates, and perhaps by the proctors and others. This can be a gut-wrenching situation as it often involves one guilty party and one innocent, oblivious party. Initially, both have to be treated the same, and it is a difficult situation for all involved. It is necessary to identify these pairs of test takers who have potentially colluded on the exam, but it stinks. In the end, however, the overarching concern is for the public's health, safety, and welfare, and the regulator's responsibility to only license those with minimum competence to provide engineering services that provide for that health, safety and welfare.


While I am certainly not known as a technology whiz, I am grateful for the many advantages that advances in technology have brought to our profession. I simply could not do my work effectively without some of them. However, these advances require us to be even more vigilant than ever in how we conduct our work, how we present and share our work, and, in the end, how we take responsibility for our work.