Recent high-profile product liability lawsuits against automotive manufacturers have captured national attention. These cases have led to a renewed and heightened focus on automotive safety and, specifically, the guidelines and procedures used by automotive manufactures to determine whether to initiate a recall.
Malcolm Gladwell explores this topic in-depth in an article entitled “The Engineer’s Lament,” appearing in the May 4, 2015 issue of The New Yorker. Gladwell interviews Denny Gioia, a former Ford Motor Company engineer who worked in the company’s recall department during the 1970s. Gioia explains the difficulties encountered by engineers in investigating field reports of accidents or malfunctions and attempting to determine whether there are patterns in the data that would suggest a defective part – a “traceable cause.” Gioia and his fellow engineers at Ford would often struggle to ask themselves, “When do I actually have enough information that says it goes on the [potential recall] docket? Then how do I have enough information to make a compelling case to convince an executive panel that they really should spend thirty million dollars on a recall?”
As Gladwell explains, engineers and regulators often look at reports of defects from a very different angle than the general public (which can be heavily influenced by sensationalized news coverage). There is no such thing as a perfectly safe vehicle – every design choice made by an automobile manufacturer needs to balance vehicle safety against other considerations, such as cost. Gladwell zeroes in on the Ford Pinto cases in the early 1970s, when Ford was indicted in connection with a rear-collision accident that had resulted in the deaths of three teen-aged passengers. Although the prosecutor in that case argued that the design of the fuel tank was defective, Gladwell points out (and the jury ultimately was persuaded) that the Pinto design was not materially different in this regard from that of other compact cars of that era. While everyone remembers the Ford Pinto cases and associates that brand with unsafe defects, the data from that era confirms that the Pinto was no more or less safe than its peers. The public responds to sensationalized media coverage; engineers focus solely on the facts and data available to them. The question of whether a product is “safe” may depend upon whom you ask.
Gladwell’s analysis also serves as a reminder of the importance of public relations and crisis management when companies are faced with high profile issues or lawsuits.