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Case Study: The Ford Motor Company

In engineering, mistakes do happen, some more often and others rarely. The occurrence of an engineering mistake is one thing and the degree of adversity of the same mistake is another. All in all, engineering is one field that is very sensitive and every mistake committed may cost an unprecedented toll. In all engineering endeavors, mistakes are the least aspects expected, and as such engineering, ethics must be upheld to the maximum level possible. Depending on the nature of the outcome expected of an engineering solution or invention, a specific style of ethics may be appropriate to favor the application of the same innovation.

In this paper, a case of engineering mistake which aligns with utilitarian ethical style is highlighted. In that regard, the disaster of the Ford Company resonates well with the context of utilitarianism as an ethical method applicable in engineering (Karnouskos, 2021). This style of ethics seeks to determine right from wrong by putting the focus on the outcome. It subscribes to consequentialism. Utilitarian style holds that any ethically upright choice will produce the greatest good for a large number of its subjects. Arguably, utilitarianism weighs the probable consequence to both the public well-being as well as to the company.

The ultimate test for any decision, especially following the principles of utilitarianism is that any greatest good implies the greatest for the greatest number. In the scope of an engineering company, any innovation has to consider ethical aspects with the most important being the impact it will bring to the public including whether a given project will guard the well-being of the general public and to what extent. Ford company, for instance, being a car manufacturing industry has to be keen in the process of building car models just to ensure that the users of their cars are safe as well as the general public from any possible danger that may arise due to an engineering flaw (Fisse, & Braithwaite, 1980). Apart from the company opting to go by utilitarianism, it is not only upholding ethics: It is also taking the most acceptable course of action. In connection to utilitarianism, this paper uses the case scenario of an engineering disaster once experienced at the Ford Company which has been among the top car manufacturing companies since the 20th century.

The Ford Motor Company manufactured almost 2 million Ford pintos. The concept was straightforward of manufacturing affordable cars for the people. In the Development stage, the Engineer’s discovered a flaw that the chances of fuel tank rupturing are high. At the time, the engineers recommended a solution to the problem which would enhance the production cost by 11 dollars for each vehicle. Still, the company decided to continue with the operation as the solution would not delay the manufacturing. As a result of this unethical mistake, almost 30 to 180 people lost their lives. Afterward, the company recalled the Ford Pinto cars and fixed them with the solution.

The only instance where one can be distant from a petroleum automotive fuel is when driving an electric vehicle. The fuel tanks are posing a hazard. Of all fuel tanks ever used on cars, the most dangerous of all time were the rear-mounted vessels that were only ever installed on Ford Pinto models manufactured between 1971 and 1976 (Karnouskos, 2021). It was an engineering mistake to ever happen due to the convergence of corporate negligence and poor engineering (Fisse, & Braithwaite, 1980). The company was in a race against the Japanese fast-growing manufacturers of cars. As a result, the president of Ford Company, then Lee Iaccoca, was willing to put everything at stake including compromising some car manufacturing standards just to catch up with the speed at which he thought would be best to outrun the Japanese companies.

The idea for manufacturing Ford Pinto was conceived in 1968. Due to the president’s hurry to see that Ford Company must beat all the Japanese small car manufacturers, he instructed the board to give the signal for the start of the manufacturing processes for Ford Pinto. Iaccaco, Ford’s then-president, compromised engineering utilitarian ethics when he chose a one-sided benefit of the engineering action. The Ford Company, in this case, was only looked at by its president in terms of the effect of the manufacturing Ford Pinto. In that essence, the company would only appear as making long strides ahead of the Japanese motor vehicle companies. The Ford Pinto users were not in any way considered in the face of any possible hazard. Utilitarianism does not support that.

Ford Company then kicked off the program from august 1968 and the expected time of delivery was after a duration of 25 months: Another ethical mischief. The deadline was at the time a record and perhaps until today (Simon, 1988). The standard deadline of production of a new model of a car according to the engineering standards as well as considering the standards as ethical is at least three years but depending on the complexity; the deadline can be a little bit longer. Taking this deadline into effect ensures that minimal flaws are identified and corrected during the manufacturing and testing stages. Any time less than the ethical deadline is far more likely to compromise the safety of a car for the great majority of users.

Everything in the Ford Pinto program was proceeding well until the development cycle when a problem was identified in the design of the fuel tank. Several flaws were exhibited by the rear tank positioned in front of the rear bumper behind the rear axle. When the tank was tested for low-speed rear-crash, the filler neck tore away from the sheet-metal tank upon impact resulting in spillage of fuel beneath the car. Another weakness exhibited by the tank was the ease of getting punctured by bolts that protruded from different brackets close to it. After the rear-impact test, the tank exhibited some leakages in less than a minute of a crash. A combination of these problems created a serious risk of fires.

In that case, engineering teams came up with solutions. One of the proposed solutions was to prevent tearing by installing reinforcements around the filler and to prevent punctures by installing tank shields. Another solution proposed was to borrow Ford Capri’s design in which a tank was positioned out of the way immediately above the axle. However, at the time, the management had developed an attitude of getting the product out of the door in the earliest time possible. Remember Ford Pinto’s design included a weight of not more than 2000 pounds and would cost not more than $2000.

The flaws imply that some cost had to be incurred in a bid to correct. That would have been an additional cost on the initial production cost. In reaction to the new financial demands that the project needed to correct the Ford Pinto design, the management, due to the hurry it had, opted to deny the new costs that would be incurred (Lütge, 2018). According to the cost-benefit analysis conducted by Ford, an additional $11 per vehicle would be incurred to fix these problems. The company then weighed the $11 against the projected injury claims for repair-costs claim rate, mortality, and severe burns. An approximate total cost of $113 million would have entirely corrected the flaws including the parts of cars in their tens of thousands as well as the production delays. But according to Ford’s math, the damage payouts were likely to cost only about $49 million. Ford Pinto, in September 1970 went into production after the management successfully nixed the fix.

Utilitarianism is founded on reason and not emotions. Engineering solutions must always be reason-based. When a company like Ford ignored the flaws which the management knew that was posing a big risk to the greatest number of people in the society, it was subscribing to the looming danger that was going to occur due to their choice to nix the fixes. By 1974, numerous complaints about Ford Pinto’s failing tank straps as well as its dangerous build-up quality prompted the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to begin an investigation about the car. In 1977, an expose about Pinto was made by the article Mother Jones on its fire danger as well as its internal documents indicating that Ford Company was aware of the problem.

Several accidents encountered by Ford Pinto users claimed lives and left others badly injured. An example is the case of Richard Grimshaw whose Pinto was involved in a low-speed accident that saw the car burst into flames. The verdict by the court on the accident was that Ford Company awarded Grimshaw in damages an amount of $3.5 million (Strother, 2018). The punishment the company received for its negligence exceeded all the profits it had made on the Ford Pinto program. Ford Pinto was dismissed from production owing to the many complaints as well as the rising death toll it kept causing. According to reports, between 27 and 180 deaths were caused by the model as a result of rear impact-related fuel tank fires. The toll came from 2.2 million vehicles sold.

As utilitarianism puts it, the greatest good implies the greatest good for the greatest public. It also implies that unethically bad actions intended to harm society impact equally on the actor. In this case, Ford Company for unethically compromising the quality of Ford Pinto did not only adversely impact the great number of users but also caused gigantic damage to its PR. Utilitarianism does not give room to an instance like that witnessed with Ford where the profits are put ahead of build quality. That is an indication of selfish traits meant to benefit one side and push the greatest part into adverse risks or harm.

Ironically, the utilitarian principle came into play at the end of the engineering mistake and disaster of Ford Company. The utilitarian style of ethics had its principles looked down upon by Ford management but the consequences were tragic for both sides of the equilibrium (Strother, 2018). The manufacturer, despite making losses on damages, the customers also lost trust for its vehicles, and the Japanese competitor car manufacturers, which Ford was seeking to outrun, became the new recipients of Ford defecting customers. Despite Pinto’s recall in 1978, Ford will remember the model as the painful lesson it ever learned. The company is now manufacturing the safest cars on the road ever since the disaster struck.

In general, utilitarianism is a theory that wishes good for the society or rather the greater majority of the people affected by a given action. Ford had the obligation to ensure that the public or the consumers of the Pinto were safe with the model. The company instead, choose to compromise the quality of the car and ignored the engineering ethics. The negligence eventually was costly to the company as well as the greater public (Karnouskos, 2021). The low-quality Pinto model was deliberately flawed by the management’s desire for competition and profits. The public and perhaps the greatest of public members were adversely affected by the decision of the Ford management to proceed with the production of Pinto without fixing the mistakes previously identified. The picture of utilitarianism showed eventually and the costs were adversely extreme either financially, socially, or physically for both the users and the company.


Fisse, B., & Braithwaite, J. (1980). The Impact of Publicity on Corporate Offenders: Ford Motor Company and the Pinto Papers. New York Times, 8.

Karnouskos, S. (2021). The role of utilitarianism, self-safety, and technology in the acceptance of self-driving cars. Cognition, Technology & Work23(4), 659-667.

Lütge, C. (2018). Ford Pinto: Is Cost-Benefit Analysis Allowed in Ethical Decision Making?. SAGE Publications: SAGE Business Cases Originals.

Simon, D. R. (1988). Corporate Crime under Attack: The Ford Pinto Case and beyond.

Strother, S. (2018). When Making Money is More Important Than Saving Lives: Revisiting the Ford Pinto Case. Journal of International & Interdisciplinary Business Research5(1), 166-181.


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