History is full of examples of products that fail and cause injury, destruction of property, and even death. In some cases, engineers knew about the problems with the products before they were produced and released, but the products were released anyway. Those engineers are then faced with one of the most controversial issues in the field of engineering: should they be aggressive with vocalizing their concerns but risk losing their jobs, or should they not be very vocal about their concerns and hope for the best?
One of the most controversial cases of the 1970s was the explosion of Ford Pintos in low-speed collisions. Reports of explosions in low-speed collisions that involved Pintos being struck from the rear came to the National Highway Safety and Transportation Administration, which led to investigations for a common cause in the deaths. In this case, there are two ethical dilemmas.
The first ethical dilemma involves the crash tests of the cars. While the crash tests were taking place, “a problem was discovered with the fuel tank of the car…which was positioned behind the rear axle” (Popular Mechanics, 2011). When the car was hit from the rear, the fuel tank was easily punctured, causing gas to spill into the car.
This often led to fiery explosions that would kill the people inside. After the engineers discovered this problem, they reported it to their superiors. The superiors did nothing to change the cars before putting them into production, which led to dangerous situations for the public. The senior management knew the car did technically meet the current federal safety requirements, but that the current design would not be in the near future, and by that time, the company planned on having a new, better, and cheaper model out. This is an ethical dilemma because the engineers working on the Pinto project were not aggressive when it came to relaying their concerns about the cars.
The second ethical dilemma is presented by the testimonials of an ex-employee of the Ford Motor Company by the name of Harley Copp. Copp was the executive of the crash testing department of the company. He did not feel right about letting the Pinto be produced without fixing the problems with the gas tank. “This company is run by salesmen, not engineers,” said Copp, “so the priority is styling, not safety” (Mother Jones, 1977). In the Mother Jones article about the Ford Pinto controversy, there are accounts of many unnamed engineers, which shows how scared the engineers were to tell their stories because it could cause them to lose their jobs.
One account tells about what would happen if one of the engineers were to go to the senior management with their concerns: “That person would have been fired,” says an unnamed engineer. “Safety wasn’t a popular subject around Ford in those days. With Lee, it was taboo” (Mother Jones, 1977). The unnamed engineer is referring to Lee Iacocca, who was the president of the Ford Motor Company in the 1970s. If there was a problem that would have delayed the production of the Pinto, Lee would have just told the engineer to read the product objectives and get back to work. Harley Copp quit his job to testify about his experiences as a Ford engineer and as the executive of the crash test department.
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