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Ethics: An Alternative Account of the Ford Pinto Case

Mark P. Rossow, Ph.D, PE Retired

The Ford Pinto case is today considered a classic example of corporate wrong-doing and is a mainstay of courses in engineering ethics, business ethics, philosophy, and the sociology of white-collar crime. The conventional account of the case holds that Ford engineers made a serious design error in locating the fuel tank behind the rear axle, leaving the Pinto vulnerable to disastrous fires in rear-end collisions. As crash-test and field data began to accumulate and reveal the danger, management made a deliberate decision not to modify the design, because doing so would harm corporate profits. Fordís decision was based on a cost-benefit analysis which balanced human lives against corporate profits.

In this course, the factual basis of the conventional account is examined and misconceptions held by the public are identified. Questions about the placement and design of the fuel tank are addressed. Data available in public records but rarely discussed by Pinto critics are presented showing that Pinto accident-fatality rates were slightly better than the average for automobiles of comparable size. The discussion is then rounded out by comments on various other criticisms that have been leveled at the Pinto, and an alternative account of the Pinto case is formulated which differs significantly from the conventional account.

This course includes a multiple-choice quiz at the end, which is designed to enhance the understanding of the course materials.

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NY PE & PLS: You must choose courses that are technical in nature or related to matters of laws and ethics contributing to the health and welfare of the public. NY Board does not accept courses related to office management, risk management, leadership, marketing, accounting, financial planning, real estate, and basic CAD. Specific course topics that are on the borderline and are not acceptable by the NY Board have been noted under the course description on our website.