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The Ford Pinto

The Ford Pinto
Case 2.2 The Ford Pinto
Th ere was a time wh en the “ made in Japan” label brought a predictable smirk of superiority to the face
of most Americans. The quality of most Japanese products usually was as low as their price. In fact, few
imports could match their domestic counterparts, the proud products of Yankee know- how. But by the
late 1960s, an invasion of foreign- made goods chiseled a few worry lines into the coun-tenance of U. S.
industry. In Detroit, worry was fast fading to panic as the Japanese, not to mention the Germans, began
to gobble up more and more of the subcompact auto market. Never one to take a backseat to the
competition, Ford Motor Company decided to meet the threat from abroad head- on. In 1968, Ford
executives decided to produce the Pinto. Known inside the company as “ Lee’s car,” after Ford president
Lee Iacocca, the Pinto was to weigh no more than 2,000 pounds and cost no more than $ 2,000.20 Eager
to have its subcompact ready for the 1971 model year, Ford decided to compress the normal drafting-
board- to-showroom time of about three- and- a- half years into two. The compressed schedule meant
that any design changes typically made before production- line tooling would have to be made during it.
Before producing the Pinto, Ford crash- tested various prototypes, in part to learn whether they met a
safety stand-ard proposed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration ( NHTSA) to reduce
fires from traffic collisions. This standard would have required that by 1972 all new autos be able to
withstand a rear- end impact of 20 mph without fuel loss, and that by 1973 they be able to withstand an
impact of 30 mph. The prototypes all failed the 20- mph test. In 1970 Ford crash- tested the Pinto itself,
and the result was the same: ruptured gas tanks and dangerous leaks. The only Pintos to pass the test
had been modified in some way— for example, with a rubber bladder in the gas tank or a piece of steel
between the tank and the rear bumper. Thus, Ford knew that the Pinto represented a serious fire hazard
when struck from the rear, even in low- speed colli-sions. Ford officials faced a decision. Should they go
ahead with the existing design, thereby meeting the production timetable but possibly jeopardizing
consumer safety? Or should they delay production of the Pinto by redesigning the gas tank to make it
safer and thus concede another year of subcompact dominance to foreign companies? Ford not only
pushed ahead with the original design but also stuck to it for the next six years. What explains Ford’s
decision? The evidence suggests that Ford relied, at least in part, on cost- benefit reasoning, which is an
analysis in monetary terms of the expected costs and benefits of doing something. There were various
ways of making the Pinto’s gas tank safer. Although the estimated price of these safety improvements
ranged from only $ 5 to $ 8 per vehicle, Ford evidently reasoned that the increased cost outweighed the
benefits of a new tank design. How exactly did Ford reach that conclusion? We don’t know for sure, but
an internal report, “ Fatalities Associated with Crash- Induced Fuel Leakage and Fires,” reveals the cost-
benefit reasoning that the company used in cases like this. This report was not written with the Pinto in
mind; rather, it concerns fuel leakage in rollover accidents ( not rear- end collisions), and its
computations applied to all Ford vehicles, not just the Pinto. Nevertheless, it illustrates the type of
reasoning that was probably used in the Pinto case. In the “ Fatalities” report, Ford engineers estimated
the cost of technical improvements that would prevent gas tanks from leaking in rollover accidents to
be $ 11 per vehi-cle. The authors go on to discuss various estimates of the number of people killed by
fires from car rollovers before settling on the relatively low figure of 180 deaths per year. But given that
number, how can the value of those individu-als’ lives be gauged? Can a dollars- and- cents figure be
assigned to a human being? NHTSA thought so. In 1972, it estimated that society loses $ 200,725 every
time a person is killed in an auto accident ( adjusted for inflation, today’s figure would, of course, be
considerably higher). It broke down the costs as follows:
Future productivity losses
Direct $ 132,000
Indirect 41,300
Medical costs Hospital 700
Other 425
Property damage 1,500
Insurance administration 4,700
Legal and court expenses 3,000
Employer losses 1,000
Victim’s pain and suffering 10,000
Funeral 900
Assets ( lost consumption) 5,000
Miscellaneous accident costs 200
Total per fatality $ 200,725
Putting the NHTSA figures together with other statistical studies, the Ford report arrives at the
following overall assessment of costs and benefits:
Benefits Savings: 180 burn deaths, 180 serious burn injuries, 2,100 burned vehicles
Unit cost: $ 200,000 per death, $ 67,000 per injury, $ 700 per vehicle
Total benefit: ( 180 × $ 200,000) + ( 180 × $ 67,000) + ( 2,100 × $ 700) = $ 49.5 million
Sales: 11 million cars, 1.5 million light trucks
Unit cost: $ 11 per car, $ 11 per truck
Total cost: 12.5 million × $ 11 = $ 137.5 million
Thus, the costs of the suggested safety improvements out-weigh their benefits, and the “ Fatalities”
report accordingly recommends against any improvements— a recommendation that Ford followed.
Likewise in the Pinto case, Ford’s management, whatever its exact reasoning, decided to stick with the
original design and not upgrade the Pinto’s fuel tank, despite the test results reported by its engineers.
Here is the aftermath of Ford’s decision: • Between 1971 and 1978, the Pinto was responsible for a
number of fire- related deaths. Ford puts the figure at 23; its critics say the figure is closer to 500.
According to the sworn testimony of Ford engineers, 95 percent of the fatalities would have survived if
Ford had located the fuel tank over the axle ( as it had done on its Capri automobiles). • NHTSA finally
adopted a 30- mph collision standard in 1976. The Pinto then acquired a rupture- proof fuel tank. In 1978
Ford was obliged to recall all 1971– 1976 Pintos for fuel- tank modifications. • Between 1971 and 1978,
approximately fifty lawsuits were brought against Ford in connection with rear- end accidents in the
Pinto. In the Richard Grimshaw case, in addition to award-ing over $ 3 million in compensatory damages
to the victims of a Pinto crash, the jury awarded a landmark $ 125 million in punitive damages against
Ford ( later reduced by the judge to $ 3.5 million) . • On August 10, 1978, the 1973 Ford Pinto that
eighteen- year-old Judy Ulrich, her sixteen- year- old sister Lynn, and their eighteen- year- old cousin
Donna were riding in was struck from the rear by a van near Elkhart, Indiana. The gas tank of the Pinto
exploded on impact. In the fire that resulted, the three teenagers were burned to death. Ford was
charged with criminal homicide. The judge in the case advised jurors that Ford should be convicted if it
had clearly disregarded the harm that might result from its actions, and that disregard represented a
substantial deviation from acceptable stand-ards of conduct. On March 13, 1980, the jury found Ford not
guilty of criminal homicide. For its part, Ford has always denied that the Pinto is unsafe compared with
other cars of its type and era. The company also points out that in every model year the Pinto met or
surpassed the government’s own standards. But what the company doesn’t say is that successful
lobbying by it and its industry associates was responsible for delaying for seven years the adoption of
any NHTSA crash standard. Furthermore, Ford’s critics claim that there were more than forty European
and Japanese models in the Pinto price and weight range with safer gas- tank position. “ Ford made an
extremely irre-sponsible decision,” concludes auto safety expert Byron Bloch, “ when they placed such a
weak tank in such a ridicu-lous location in such a soft rear end.” Has the automobile industry learned a
lesson from Ford’s experience with the Pinto? Some observers thought not when twenty years later an
Atlanta jury held the General Motors Corporation responsible for the death of a Georgia teenager in the
fiery crash of one of its pickup trucks. Finding that the company had known that its “ side- saddle” gas
tanks, which are mounted outside the rails of the truck’s frame, are dan-gerously prone to rupture, the
jury awarded $ 4.2 million in actual damages and $ 101 million in punitive damages to the parents of the
seventeen- year- old victim, Shannon Moseley. After the verdict, General Motors said that it still stood
behind the safety of its trucks and contended “ that a full examination by the National Highway Traffic
Safety Administration of the technical issues in this matter will bear out our contention that the . . .
pickup trucks do not have a safety related defect.” Subsequently, however, the Department of
Transportation determined that GM pickups of the style Shannon Moseley drove do pose a fire hazard
and that they are more prone than competitors’ pickups to catch fire when struck from the side. Still,
GM rejected requests to recall the pickups and repair them, and later the Georgia Court of Appeals
threw out the jury’s verdict on a legal technicality— despite ruling that the evidence submit-ted in the
case showed that GM was aware that the gas tanks were hazardous but, to save the expense involved,
did not try to make them safer. Expense seems to be the issue, too, when it comes to SUV rollovers.
After nearly three hundred rollover deaths in Ford Explorers equipped with Firestone tires in the late
1990s, Congress mandated NHTSA to conduct rollover road tests on all SUVs. ( Previously, the agency
had relied on mathematical formulas based on accident statistics to evaluate rollover resistance, rather
than doing real- world tests.) In August 2004 NHTSA released its results, and they weren’t pretty— at
least not for several of Detroit’s most popular models. The Chevrolet Tahoe and the Ford Explorer, in
particular, have between a 26 and a 29 percent chance of rolling over in a single- vehicle crash, almost
twice that of models from Honda, Nissan, and Chrysler. The Saturn Vue couldn’t even finish the test
because its left- rear suspension broke, leading General Motors to recall all 250,000 Vues. Ford and
General Motors have the anti- rollover technology necessary to make their SUVs safer. The problem is
that rollover sensors and electronic stability systems add about $ 800 to the price of a vehicle, so the
companies have offered them only as options. The same is true of side- curtain airbags to protect
occupants when a vehicle rolls over. They cost about $ 500. Improved design— wider wheel tracks, lower
center of gravity, and reinforced roofs to protect passengers in a rollover— would also help.
Embarrassed by the test results, the compa-nies promised to make more safety features standard
equipment on new SUVs. Lawsuits by rollover victims are also prodding the companies to enhance their
commitment to safety. Two months before NHTSA released its results, Ford had to pay $ 369 million in
damages— one of the largest personal-injury awards ever against an automaker— to a San Diego couple
whose Explorer flipped over four- and- a- half times when they swerved to avoid a metal object on the
Discussion Questions
1. What moral issues does the Pinto case raise?
2. Suppose Ford officials were asked to justify their decision. What moral principles do you think they
would invoke? Assess Ford’s handling of the Pinto from the perspective of each of the moral theories
discussed in this chapter.
3. Utilitarians would say that jeopardizing motorists does not by itself make Ford’s action morally
objectionable. The only morally relevant matter is whether Ford gave equal consideration to the
interests of each affected party. Do you think Ford did this?
4. Is cost- benefit analysis a legitimate tool? What role, if any, should it play in moral deliberation?
Critically assess the example of cost- benefit analysis given in the case study. Is there anything
unsatisfactory about it? Could it have been improved upon in some way?
5. Speculate about Kant’s response to the idea of placing a monetary value on a human life. Is doing so
ever morally legitimate?
6. What responsibilities to its customers do you think Ford had? What are the most important moral
rights, if any, operating in the Pinto case?
7. Would it have made a moral difference if the savings resulting from not improving the Pinto gas tank
had been passed on to Ford’s customers? Could a rational customer have chosen to save a few dollars
and risk having the more dangerous gas tank? What if Ford had told potential customers about its
8. The maxim of Ford’s action might be stated thus: “ When the cost of a safety improvement would hurt
the bottom line, it’s all right not to make it.” Can this maxim be universalized? Does it treat humans as
ends in them-selves? Would manufacturers be willing to abide by it if the positions were reversed and
they were in the role of consumers?
9. Should Ford have been found guilty of criminal homicide in the Ulrich case?
10. Was GM responsible for Shannon Moseley’s death? Compare that case with the case of Ford and the
11. Assess Ford’s and GM’s actions with respect to SUV roll-overs. Have the auto- makers met their moral
obligation to consumers, or have they acted wrongly by not doing more to increase SUV safety? Should
they be held either mor-ally or legally responsible for deaths from roll- overs that would not have
occurred in other vehicles? What should automakers do to increase SUV safety?
12. Is it wrong for business to sell a product that is not as safe as it could be, given current technology?
Is it wrong to sell a vehicle that is less safe than competing products on the market? Are there limits to
how far automakers must go in the name of safety?

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