Ethical Design: The Ford Pinto


In 1969, the Ford Motor Company was in a race with other U.S. automakers to provide sub-compact cars that could directly compete with and challenge foreign automakers. Specifically the Japanese and Volkswagen cars were targeted as the main competition. Ford decided it needed a subcompact which would sell for under $2,000 and would weigh no more than one ton or 2,000lbs. The answer came in the form of the Ford Pinto. The Pinto was designed and produced in a record-setting 22 months. The 1971 model had entry-level pricings at around $1,900 and weighed roughly 1,950lbs. Ford had reached its goals for the Pinto.

When originally made available, the Pinto was not mobbed by customers, but the model did exhibit strong sales. The Pinto became a success. Within the first year over 300,000 Pintos were produced. The model reached a peak production in 1974 at a rate of over 500,000 automobiles produced that year. The Pinto was especially successful in California where there was a strong tendency to buy foreign imports. The market share of foreign imports for sub-compacts dropped almost a full percentage point in 1971 alone.

Along with the story of success of the Ford Pinto came the tales of inadequacies and complaints. Due to the cost cuts in design, many of the components of the Pinto’s interior were made of cheap plastic. Customers complained quite often about the inside door handles breaking off in their hands. Dealerships started to fill shelves with replacement parts, and some customers even kept boxes of these handles within their automobile to keep it on the road. Still, most maintenance on the Pinto was simple to perform, and Ford even offered maintenance kits so that theoretically an owner never had to visit a dealership to fix their Pinto. In addition to these complaints stories were emerging about Pintos erupting into flames after relatively low-speed rear impacts.

In 1975, the Ford Pinto was suffering from some setbacks. The U.S. economy was still feeling the effects of the 1973-74 fuel and oil crisis, and the average citizen did not want to buy a gas-guzzling vehicle. The automobile industry was hit hard. Apart from the industry-wide effects, the Pinto and Ford itself had to increasingly deal with suits and torts from Pinto owners who had been in accidents where their vehicle had burst into flame. The Ford Pinto had a dangerous design flaw.

The Pinto design incorporated a fuel tank situated below and behind the rear axle giving a distance between the axle and tank of only 9 inches. On the axle itself were bolts which during rear impacts would cut into the fuel tank causing flammable fuel to spill forth. The filler neck of the tank itself was also too short a depth and when impacted would shear away causing more fluid to spill. These two key factors made rear impacts extremely dangerous.

One prominent instance of these explosive accidents occurred in 1972 when a woman named Lily Gray and her 13 year old neighbor Richard Grimshaw were driving a 1972 Pinto down the freeway when the car stalled due to carburetor complications and was hit from behind. The Pinto burst into flames causing the death of Lily Gray and serious burns to Richard Grimshaw. The resulting lawsuit cost Ford $560,000 in wrongful death damages, $2.5 million in compensatory damages, and $125 million in punitive damages which was later reduced to $3.5 million.

Near the same time as the Grimshaw lawsuit was under way; an article came out in a magazine known as Mother Jones describing the Ford Pinto design flaw. It also described how Ford was aware of this flaw during the design stage of the Pinto and went ahead with the production regardless. The article, written by Mark Dowie, also brought to light a memo that was found within the Ford company detailing a cost-benefit analysis of the recall and repair of the design flaw of the Pinto versus the compensation Ford would have to pay to victims if the flaw was not taken care of. Using a figure of $200,000 per life and $67,000 per injury, and assuming 180 injuries along with 180 deaths, the Ford Motor Company believed it less expensive to not recall the Pinto and just deal with the lawsuits. New evidence has been brought to light by the case study performed by Gary Schwartz. This evidence suggests that the infamous Ford Pinto Memo was truly a memo for the National Highway Transportation Safety Bureau (NHTSA) which displays the cost-benefit analysis for new roll-over safety measures for the entire automotive industry. The number of deaths and injuries resulting from all cars within the U.S. in regards to roll-over accidents. The life-value figures were actually those already created by the NHTSA in previous instances.

Ford did issue a recall in 1978 for the Pinto where a longer filler neck and shielding for the tank would be installed. Even though the NHTSA issued a statement saying that the Pinto needed no recall, as the design flaw that was inherent in the Pinto was not necessarily unique to the Pinto. Other sub-compact cars had similar fuel tank placements, some being arguably worse. The Pinto receives the most recognition due to its popularity, the Mother Jones article, and the publicity surrounding the law suits.

So Ford might not have done anything out of the ordinary in making a car which had flaws. They did not necessarily create a cost-benefit analysis valuing life at a mere $200,000. Many of the accusations and public knowledge of the Pinto case were skewed or misjudged. However, the facts of the case suggest that Ford did produce the Pinto after numerous crash tests showed the dangers of rear impacts to their design. They knowingly did not fix the design even though evidence shows they had various methods for doing so, some only costing roughly $5 per vehicle. This evidence in and of itself can be used to condemn Ford.

Utilitarianism is often the school of ethics most closely associated with the Ford Pinto case. All the talk of cost-benefit analyses and recalls seems to suggest a strong link between Ford’s thought processes and Utilitarianism. Problems and dilemmas come down to the bottom line; will the ends justify the means? Ford believed that creating an exciting new product in record time was more important than creating one that was thoroughly tested, designed, and inspected. The ends for Ford were new sub-compact cars which could compete with foreign imports. The means were limited design time and reducing costs. By cutting costs, Ford knowingly created a product which could prove dangerous and fatal to its consumers. Does Ford’s ends justify its means? Ford did create a sub-compact that sold extremely well and competed fiercely with foreign imports. The goal of the Ford Pinto was met. The costs of this win were substantial however. The money that Ford tried to save by not recalling the vehicle was spent when Ford recalled the Pinto, and extra was spent in compensatory and punitive damages in lawsuits. So the costs that Ford tried to avoid were incurred anyway along with extra. The damage to the Ford reputation was also substantial. Saying such as Ford stands for “Found On Roadside Dead” became commonplace. Determining whether Ford made a profit from the Pinto is hard to determine. The costs from the lawsuits and recall are easily calculated, but a cost due to damaged reputation is quite difficult to analyze. Also it is impossible to say whether the Pinto would have met the goals of Ford had a longer and more thorough design period been emplaced. Some profit would have been lost due to longer production time, however many of the costs incurred from Ford’s decision would have never been. In light of the damaged reputation, I believe that even under the Utilitarianism school of ethics, Ford was in the wrong. Their ends did not justify their means.

A similar ethical concept to Utilitarianism is that of Rawl’s Theory of Justice. Within his theories he states that for something to be both ethical and just it must not infringe on the basic rights and liberties of a person, nor give advantage to any one group but to all with positions and offers available to all equally. In reference to the Ford Pinto, the second statement is upheld. The Pinto being a relatively cheap car which was often a starter vehicle, and as long as a person had the funds and a driver’s license, they could own the vehicle. So the design process general design itself was both fair and ethical to Rawls when regarding the second of his two theories of justice. The first theory can be up to interpretation. The only rights or liberties that might have been infringed upon are those of safety and life. Due to the design decisions of Ford, a customer’s life and safety could be considered in danger when driving the Ford Pinto. However it is interesting to think how Rawls would have interpreted this. Does the consumer take the responsibility of the lack of safety when driving; as driving itself is inherently unsafe in the long term when looking at straight probability.  Or does Ford take the blame for this lack of safety? Ford Pintos constituted 1.9% of the vehicles driven in America, they were responsible for 4.1% of the rear-end impact accident deaths. Therefore, the Pinto was statistically more unsafe than its competitors making it likely that Rawls would rule the Ford design decisions as unjust and unethical.

The Ford Pinto was a revolutionary vehicle. It was made from near-scratch with little design taken from other vehicles. It had a concept-to-production life of a record-setting 22 months. The Ford Motor Company knew during the design of flaws in the placement and design of the fuel tank. The flaws resulted in fires from rear impacts and the deaths of 27 persons as recorded by the NHTSA. Even though these deaths were not substantially higher than the Pinto’s competitors, the blatant disregard for fixing the problem and delaying the recall until 7 years after the issues arose make the decisions by the Ford Motor Company unethical. Two different views of ethics confirm this. The Pinto was a revolutionary vehicle but also a flammable one.

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