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Ethics: Case Studies. Using Case Studies in Engineering Ethics. Case 1. The Ford Pinto. The Ford Pinto Case. First introduced in 1970 and built through 1980 model year. During crash tests which proceeded sales of the Pinto to the public, a serious design flaw was discovered.

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ethics case studies

Ethics:Case Studies

Using Case Studies in Engineering Ethics

case 1

Case 1

The Ford Pinto

the ford pinto case
The Ford Pinto Case
  • First introduced in 1970 and built through 1980 model year.
  • During crash tests which proceeded sales of the Pinto to the public, a serious design flaw was discovered.
  • The gas tank was so designed that when it was involved in a rear end collision at an impact speed of 20 MPH or greater, the tank was likely to rupture, causing a fire and explosion.
the ford pinto case4
The Ford Pinto Case
  • The gas tank was only 5 inches forward of the rear sheet metal of the body and only 3 inches from the rear axle.
  • In most rear-end crashes, the axle housing deformed the gas tank and sharp bolts punctured the tank.
the ford pinto case5
The Ford Pinto Case
  • Following crash tests, the conclusion was that the rear end structure was not satisfactory.
  • Suggested changes would have cost about $11 per car.
  • A confidential company memo directed that the safety features not be adopted until required by law.
the ford pinto case6
The Ford Pinto Case
  • Ford Motor Company knew about the problems.
  • Table at right is taken from an internal Ford memorandum dated 11-16-1973.
the ford pinto case7
The Ford Pinto Case


  • Design was rushed. The normal time to produce an automobile is 43 months - Ford took 25 for the Pinto.
  • Before production, Ford engineers discovered flaws in the car’s design. In nearly all rear-end crash test collisions the Pinto's fuel system would rupture extremely easily.
  • Because assembly-line tooling was already in place when engineers found this defect, top Ford officials decided to manufacture the car anyway, exploding gas tank and all, even though Ford owned the patent on a much safer gas tank.
the ford pinto case8
The Ford Pinto Case
  • What are the ethical elements that we need to consider? Who are the players?
the ford pinto case9
The Ford Pinto Case
  • Ethics Questions:
    • What were the responsibilities of the Ford design engineers?
    • What were the responsibilities of the crash-test engineers?
    • What were the responsibilities of company management – including subcontractors?
case 2

Case 2

The DC 10 Cargo Door

dc 10 cargo door
DC 10 Cargo Door
  • On June 12, 1972 A DC-10 left Detroit with 67 passengers.
  • After reaching 12,000 feet over Windsor, Ontario the cargo door blew off, collapsing the floor and disrupting all hydraulic controls to tail section.
  • Only the pilot’s skill and the light load prevented a total disaster.
    • used differential engine thrust for control
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DC 10 Cargo Door
  • June 27, 1972 Daniel Applegate, Director of Product Engineering for Convair, the fuselage contractor, wrote a memo to his supervisors detailing potential problems of cargo door.
  • The problem was first recognized in August 1969. The same thing had also happened in a ground test in 1970 (Ship1).
  • Recognized design flaws:
    • too few floor supports, defective latch
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DC 10 Cargo Door
  • Aft door failure
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DC 10 Cargo Door

Design Process

  • In designing the airframe, McDonnell-Douglas chose to make the DC-10 much like the older DC-8 and DC-9, two very successful and safe aircraft.
  • PRO:
    • sped up design process
    • Fit with “an oft-stated company policy of technological caution”
  • CON:
    • question as to whether same design principles apply to wide-body aircraft
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DC 10 Cargo Door

More About the Design Process

  • The DC-10 engineers were constrained by management to use the existing airframe technology (which was not necessarily adequate for an aircraft the size of the DC-10)
  • Both Boeing and Lockheed had made several advancements in their airframe structural designs for the 747 and the L-1011, respectively.
    • These design advances were not proprietary
  • So one might argue that the accepted engineering practice for building a jumbo jet was significantly different from what McDonnell-Douglas was doing
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DC 10 Cargo Door

Passenger Floor Supports:

  • Followed DC-9 format for number of floor supports.
  • In retrospect, this was relatively few floor supports given the wide-bodied nature of the plane.
  • WHY? The principle of “technological caution,” together with severe financial straits of the company “was apparently interpreted by its engineers to dictate that corners be cut and existing Douglas technology be used, even if it meant that some systems that were rejected as inferior by its competitors would be designed into the DC-10.”
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DC 10 Cargo Door

Cargo-Door Latching System

  • 3 choices: Plug / Hydraulic / Electric
    • Plug (DC-9) infeasible for larger door
    • Electric
      • Lighter, fewer parts, easier to maintain
      • Exerts pressure only when switched on; irreversible
      • If it fails to close completely, it holds more securely
      • but more catastrophic failure – sudden depressurization at high altitude
    • Hydraulic
      • Heavier, more parts, harder to maintain
      • Continually exerts pressure; not irreversible
      • If it fails to close completely, more frequent failures
      • but less catastrophic failures – less violent depressurization at much lower altitude
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DC 10 Cargo Door
  • Latch problem was that the door could appear to be latched but be prone to failure due to differential pressure
  • See animation

dc 10 cargo door19
DC 10 Cargo Door
  • After the Detroit near-disaster, the NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) investigation revealed several problems and recommended immediate design changes.
  • The FAA did not follow NTSB recommendations.
    • FAA director John Shaffer and Douglas President Jackson McGowan reached a gentleman’s agreement to voluntarily fix the problem
    • no further official action was taken
dc10 cargo door
DC10 Cargo Door
  • In July 1972, three inspectors at Long Beach plant certified that Ship 29 had been modified to fix problems
  • Each affixed a stamp to the Ship’s paperwork confirming the modifications
  • The modifications, in fact, had not been made
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DC10 Cargo Door
  • Two years later on March 3, 1974, after leaving Paris, TK (Turkish Airlines) Flight 981 (Ship 29) had its cargo door blown off at 10,000 feet
  • The result was a crash that killed all 346 people onboard
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DC 10 Cargo Door


  • McDonnel-Douglas was in precarious financial condition - trying to beat the Lockheed L1011 to market
  • Convair did not push too hard, since by contract, they may have been held liable for the costs of all design changes

Were the companies negligent?

dc 10 cargo door23
DC 10 Cargo Door


  • Engineers pressed the matter through normal channels to the highest levels within both companies, but did not take it any further
  • Standard operating procedure at McDonnell Douglas and Convair was for engineers to defer to upper management, even though they were aware of serious design flaws

Were the engineers negligent?

dc 10 cargo door24
DC 10 Cargo Door


  • What about the three inspectors who certified that changes had been made?
  • What responsibility rests with the ground crew member(s) who actually closed and latched the door?

Were these people negligent?

codes of ethics
Codes of Ethics
  • How do the current codes of ethics relate to each of these cases?
  • What is the relationship between negligence and ethical responsibilities?
other major engineering failures
Other Major Engineering Failures
  • Interstate 35W Bridge, Minneapolis, MN (2007)
  • Columbia Space Shuttle (2003)
  • Challenger Space Shuttle (1986)
  • Kansas City Hyatt Regency Walkway Collapse, MO (1981)
  • Teton Dam (1976)
  • Tacoma Narrows Bridge, WA (1940)