Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Has GM Pulled a Pinto with the Cobalt?

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Has GM Pulled a Pinto with the Cobalt?

Article excerpt

In the late 1960s, a charismatic vice president at Ford Motor Co. decided to bring out a low-priced car that could be produced for little money while bringing in huge profits. The executive's name was Lee Iacocca, and the Ford Pinto he championed became one of the most infamous models in U.S. automotive history. Why? Because to save money, Ford released a car that could explode in even low- speed rear-end collisions.

I still teach the Pinto case to my law students as an example of how profits sometimes overwhelm principle. Even a savings of a couple of bucks per vehicle becomes significant when multiplied over the course of production.

Recently, another Detroit CEO, Mary Barra, sat before a congressional committee answering withering questions about the Cobalt, a low-cost car produced by General Motors with a design flaw that the company acknowledges was responsible for more than a dozen deaths.

For those of us who teach the Pinto case, the similarities are unsettling.

As with the Pinto, the problem with GM's Cobalt involved a design flaw - in this case, a faulty ignition switch that could shift, under certain circumstances, from the "run" position to the "accessory" position while the car was being driven. This led to a loss of power and a shutdown of both the power-steering and air-bag systems. Documents indicate that GM knew of the defect as far back as 2004, but the company did not recall vehicles until February of this year. By that time, the flaw had been implicated in at least 13 deaths and 31 crashes.

So, has GM pulled a Pinto? You be the judge.

The impetus for Ford's making the Pinto came from Mr. Iacocca himself, who wanted to achieve a 2,000/2,000 car: a vehicle that would weigh less than 2,000 pounds and could be sold for less than $2,000. That was the holy grail of the industry, considered a sure bet to make a fortune.

To meet those goals, however, the Pinto was stripped of some basic safety elements. The car was fitted with a flimsy chrome bumper located just inches from the gas tank, which had design flaws of its own.

The combination of problems meant that the gas tank was likely to rupture and explode in even low-speed collisions. …

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