The 6th Annual Sidney and Ann Braudy and Louis and Edith Manker MBA, Law, and M. Eng. Engineering Management Ethics Workshop was held Friday Sept. 26, 2014

From the Ford Pinto to the GM Ignition Switch (with the Toyota Prius in Between): Engineering, Management, and the Recall System

On Friday September 26, 2015 the 6th Annual Sidney and Ann Braudy and Louis and Edith Manker Engineering Management Ethics Workshop for MBA, Law, and M. Eng. Students was held in Cornell’s ILR Conference Room. This year the workshop compared the iconic Ford Pinto case to the Toyota unintended acceleration case and the recent GM ignition switch scandal, with an eye toward condieration of the recall system in the auto industry as a whole. Moderators for the workshop were Prof. Ron Kline (Director – Bovay Program in Engineering Ethics), Dr. Park Doing (Bovay Program), Prof. Bradley Wendel (Law), Dr. John Callister (MAE, Director of Entrepreneurship Programs), Carol Grumbach (Associate Vice Provost), Dr. Erica Dawson (Director- Leadership Programs), Dr. Rachel Maines (Visiting Bovay Scholar), Dr. Bob Braudy (Cornell ’65, ’66), and Judi Braudy. The workshop was attended by 9 MBA students, 6 Law Students, and 22 Engineering Students.

The Workshop opened with a presentation by Dr. Erica Dawson about ‘Motivated Reasoning’, the phenomenon whereby people bring underlying goals or positions to ‘rational’ analysis. Dr. Dawson showed how pervasive motivated reasoning is and that none of us are completely above it. She pointed out how motivated reasoning helps explain why more facts about particular issues only serves to further polarize opposing sides – the facts are interpreted by each side accordingly. After that, Dr. Park Doing gave a presentation that laid out the details of the Ford Pinto case and the implementation of the recall system in the 1970s, the Toyota Prius unintended acceleration case, and the recent GM ignition switch case.

The point was made that at the time of the Ford Pinto case, safety regulation was in a nascent stage, and that even the concept that a car itself should be safe, like other products, was just beginning to take hold and greatly accelerated by the Pinto fires and deaths. This aspect that society itself was just coming to safety as an expected part of automobile production, and that there were many other unsafe cars on the road, was seen as being in stark contrast to the Toyota acceleration and GM ignition cases, where societal values of safety and safety regulation had been firmly in place for decades. Considering the Toyota and GM cases, it was noted that while Toyota did not seem to have evidence ahead release that cars would accelerate unintentionally, GM had such evidence and had even changed a part in the ignition system to fix the problem without admitting the first part was bad or assigning the new part a new part number. Dr. John Callister noted that he had worked in the auto industry and that it had been his job to sign off on changes to parts as designs developed. Dr. Callister pointed out that such a decision was a ‘cardinal sin’ in automotive design and that there must have been tremendous pressure in the organization to do such a thing. It was agreed among the groups that at the time of the decision GM was in a very precarious state the company was headed toward bankruptcy and soon to be bailed out by federal intervention, and that this played a major role in general pressure hide this defect. Nevertheless, it was decided that engineers who took part in this were in stark violation of engineering ethics.

It was noted that in all three cases, consumers who were harmed by a defect faced an ‘upstream swim’ to convince the companies and regulators of the problems and that only through legal requirements of disclosure from lawsuits did information become available and regulators act. Even then, the practice of settling out of court under non-disclosure agreements further inhibits the dissemination of information regarding safety. This aspect of the recall system of automobile safety was seen as particularly troubling to the group.

2014 Braudy Workshop