The May 4 issue of The New Yorker takes a look at the mind of the engineer. Ostensibly, Malcolm Gladwell, the author, is writing about automotive safety. But his description of the life of Denny Gioia, who was an automotive engineer working in Ford’s recall office in the early 1970s, helps elucidate the differences in the way most people see the world and the way engineers do.
Gladwell cites some of the common jokes: for example, the optimist sees the glass as half full, the pessimist sees the glass as half empty, and the engineer sees the glass as 100% overdesigned. But Gladwell’s subject is deadly serious, dealing as it does with Ford Pinto gas tanks exploding on rear collisions—as well as more recent automotive tragedies leading to lawsuits and recalls.
According to Gladwell, most people view a car as either not faulty or faulty and thus in need of recall. Engineers, in contrast, realize perfection is unattainable and compromises must be made. When examining hundreds of cases and deciding which to place on the recall docket, Gioia tells Gladwell, he looks for traceable causes. “You have to be able to identify something that’s breaking,” he said. “Otherwise, I’ve got an imaginary event. I try not to engage in magical thinking. I’ve also got to have a pattern of failures. Idiosyncrasies won’t do. Question is, do you have enough here indicating that these failures are not just one-off events?”
Gladwell focuses extensively on the Ford
Pinot Pinto* case, in which Ford faced homicide charges. The general consensus was that Ford produced and failed to recall and fix a faulty vehicle. But from an engineering perspective, the Pinto was not significantly more or less safe than other cars in its class—in fact it was safer in some ways and less safe in others. An example of the latter, Gladwell writes, is that the Vega could withstand a 27- or 28-mph rear collision without a fuel system rupture, while the corresponding figure was 25 mph for the Pinto. And even when the Pinto’s rating was raised to 30 mph, fatalities were not affected.
Nevertheless, Gioia, who now chairs the department of management and organization, has second thoughts about the Pinto case. Writes Gladwell, “Now that he is no longer an engineer, even he finds it easy to criticize his former self. ‘I think I could have made a huge difference if I had just gotten on the horn and started making calls,’ he said. ‘What do you know? What’s going on here? Here’s the pattern I’m seeing from here, what can you tell me about this?’ He thinks he could have brought the Pinto case to the attention of Ford’s management earlier; he could have lessened the crisis that followed. Then he remembered what it was like in the recall office, the flood of cases, the complexity and the ambiguity of those cases. If he didn’t rely on the numbers, how would he know what to care about? ‘I had bigger fish to fry,’ he said. ‘Bigger, more immediate problems to take care of.’”
You can read the complete article here, or refer it to a friend or family member who wants to understand the engineering mind.
*One person in the comments section took me to task for the initial mistake. If only it could be a laughing matter. I apologize for the mistake.