Engineering Ethics: The Ford Pinto Exploding Fuel Tank

The Pinto case burst into the national consciousness after Mother Jones magazine published an investigatory piece by journalist Mark Dowie titled “Pinto Madness” in 1977. The article referred to the Pinto as a “firetrap” and “death trap” and castigated Ford for “placing a dollar value on human life.”

Ford Pinto

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Thursday, August 05, 2021

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Ethics: The Ford Pinto Exploding Fuel Tank

The Ford Pinto scandal is now part of the lore of American culture. The Pinto was a subcompact car manufactured by the Ford Motor Company for the model years 1971–1980. During the 1970s, there were many documented cases of Ford Pintos bursting into flames as a result of rear-end collisions.

The Pinto case burst into the national consciousness after Mother Jones magazine published an investigatory piece by journalist Mark Dowie titled “Pinto Madness” in 1977. The article referred to the Pinto as a “firetrap” and “death trap” and castigated Ford for “placing a dollar on human life.”

The company took a beating when it was revealed in the media that Ford knew about deficiencies in the fuel tank system, but proceeded with the design anyway based on the results of a cost-benefit analysis included in what is now referred to as The Pinto Memo.

The conventional wisdom is that Ford showed callous disregard for safety and reduced human life to a dollar value in its prioritization of profits over consumer safety and ethics. However, the case against the Pinto was not so clear-cut:

  • The $200,000 life-valuation figure used by Ford in its cost-benefit analysis was actually provided to Ford and other automakers by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)
  • The Pinto Memo wasn’t used or consulted internally by Ford, but rather was attached to a letter written to NHTSA about proposed regulation
  • The Pinto’s fuel tank location behind the axle, ostensibly its design defect, was commonplace at the time in American cars
  • The precedent of the California Supreme Court at the time not only tolerated manufacturers trading off safety for cost, but apparently encouraged manufacturers to consider such trade-offs
  • 27 deaths were attributed to Pinto fires (the same number of deaths attributed to a Pinto transmission problem) out of 3 million vehicles sold. The car was no more fire-prone than other cars of the time and its fatality rates were lower than comparably sized imported automobiles

In light of the above, do you think history should look more kindly on the Ford engineers that worked on the Pinto project?

Not so fast … The fact remains that Ford’s engineers discovered in pre-­production crash tests that rear­-end collisions would rupture the Pinto’s fuel system extremely easily. Several inexpensive modifications were devised (some less than $10/vehicle) to make the Pinto less susceptible to fuel leakage and fire following a rear-end collision. Yet, none were implemented.

This webinar will not proffer any opinion on the ethics of Ford’s decisions regarding the Pinto. The objective of the course is to present the facts and debates so that the student can formulate his or her own opinions. The case encompasses multiple ethical dilemmas that are frequently encountered in the engineering profession and the student is encouraged to reflect on the manner in which those dilemmas apply personally.

What you’ll learn in just one hour:

  • How the Ford Pinto fit into the automobile market environment of the early 1970’s
  • Why it was alleged that the Pinto was rushed into production
  • Details of the Pinto’s fuel system design
  • The primary cause of the Pinto’s fuel tank rupture in rear-end collisions
  • Low-cost solutions found by Ford engineers (which were never implemented) to mitigate the risk of fire resulting from rear-end collisions
  • The results of Ford’s cost/benefit analysis of the Pinto problem
  • The factors surrounding Ford’s 1978 recall of the Pinto
  • Ethical considerations of Ford engineers working on the Pinto project
  • The extent to which cost and schedule pressures led to the decision not to fix the Pinto fuel system problem
  • How well the engineers in the Pinto case met their obligation to hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public

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