If all of these matters fitted together perfectly, or if ethical considerations were clear in all cases, we probably wouldn’t have a class addressing the matter. What is important, and what you will receive the most credit for, is your analysis of the situation and the facts surrounding it. the purposes of this, the rules, regulations, or laws of an organization or department of government don’t matter. You’re the ethical boss; you have the power to make it right if it is not. What matters is what you think is the correct ethical approach, and whether or not your conclusions are supported by clear, persuasive, and convincing points and arguments in favor of one position or another. Discussing both sides of an issue will gain more credit than examining only one side of it because often, if not always, there’s more than one side to a problem. The reasoning is more important than the exact conclusion, so long as your conclusion is not actually without ethical foundation. After all, you may in future have to explain your ethical conclusions to others occupying positions of higher decision-making authority, so it makes sense that your ethical analyses and conclusions have firm foundation and must be clear, persuasive, and convincing
NILS IVAR BOHLIN
Ramfall, Ydre Municipality, Sweden
“I realized both the upper and lower body must be held securely in place with one strap across the chest and across the hips,” Mr. Bohlin once said. “The belt also needed an immovable anchorage point for the buckle as far down beside the occupant’s hip as possible, so it could hold the body properly during a collision. It was just a matter of finding a solution that was simple, effective, and could be put on conveniently with one hand.”
“The pilots I worked with in the aerospace industry were willing to put on almost anything to keep them safe in case of a crash, but regular people in cars don’t want to be uncomfortable even for a minute,” he said.
“In a way, my design works as much because the belt is comfortable for the user as it does because it is safer,” Bohlin said in 2002, just prior to his death, after learning that he had been nominated for induction into the United States National Inventors Hall of Fame.
As Mr. Bohlin was employed by the Volvo Car Company at the time he worked on and perfected his invention, the patent rights were “assigned” to Volvo for the company’s exclusive use, meaning that Volvo could forbid others to use the design, or could allow others to use the design upon payment of a fee, or royalty, to Volvo.
In 1968, Volvo management decided that the invention was so important in terms of its lifesaving potential that it should be made available, at no cost, to other auto manufacturers.
Upon Mr. Bohlin’s passing in 2002, a Volvo press release stated that Mr. Bohlin’s 3-point seat belt invention was estimated to have saved more than one million lives worldwide.
The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that Mr. Bohlin’s invention saves about 15,000 lives yearly in the United States alone.
“Letters arrive all the time, from all over the world, thanking him for his invention; it warmed his heart very much. He buckled up every time he got into a car.”
-A quote from Mr. Gunnar Ornmark, one of Mr. Bohlin’s stepsons, who traveled from Sweden to the 2002 National Inventors Hall of Fame annual awards ceremony to accept his late stepfather’s induction on behalf of his family.
Here are a few things to think about with regard to Mr. Bohlin’s invention, and Volvo’s decision as to how it should be managed and made available:
Is it possible to estimate the monetary or financial value of the 3-point seatbelt? How about its value to Volvo as an exclusive advertising feature, had they so chosen to use it that way? Before working for Volvo, Mr. Bohlin was employed by SAAB, where he worked on the design of aircraft safety systems and ejection seats. The insight gained while working on these systems at SAAB likely informed Mr. Bohlin’s thoughts about automotive seatbelts before he was employed by Volvo, giving him the opportunity to develop his ideas independent of an employer. As is customary in industries that employ designers and engineers, Mr. Bohlin entered into an agreement with Volvo such that the patent, design, and manufacturing rights to anything invented by him using company resources or on company time would be owned by Volvo. Considering the possible worldwide impact of a safety-related invention, is there an ethical issue involved for companies to insist upon such an agreement? After all, Mr. Bohlin accepted only a salary for one of the most important inventions of all time in automotive safety. What do you think of Volvo’s management’s decision to make the design available, at no cost, to all vehicle manufacturers? Should Mr. Bohlin have been consulted prior to such a decision being made? How do you think he would have felt about that proposition? If you were in his shoes, how would you feel about it? Do you think that Volvo’s management had to “sell” that decision to the company’s owners, the stockholders? Did Volvo’s decision to give away, at no cost, the rights to use the invention cost Volvo money or market share? Suppose you’re a stockholder in the company. How do you feel about the fact that, but for giving away the rights to an industry-changing safety invention, your stock value might have gone up substantially? Is the ongoing countless number of lives saved worth it from an ethical standpoint?
Mr. Bohlin could have designed, developed, and perfected his invention between his jobs at SAAB and Volvo, probably resulting in his exclusive ownership of the patent rights. He could have pursued employment with a company that did not insist upon an assignment of rights to inventions instead of going to work for Volvo. Or, maybe, he could have negotiated with Volvo about the terms of the agreement. And, Volvo was certainly not forced to allow other auto manufacturers to use an invention owned by it for free. It’s possible that Mr. Bohlin could have negotiated an agreement with Volvo that would have split royalty payments between himself and Volvo; this could have made him rich. In addition, Volvo’s “bottom line” would have been enhanced by their advertising advantage and by their receipt of cash royalties paid by other auto manufacturers for the privilege of equipping their cars with Mr. Bohlin’s invention. Had it gone that way, no one outside of Volvo Car Company would have known about it, and few would condemn such decisions even if they had known. In other words, an ethical choice presented itself when no one was looking; this is a subtitle of your textbook.
And now, to the law enforcement and public safety angle regarding this story:
Suppose you’re an officer assigned to your organization’s Fatal Accident Investigation Team. You’ve seen and investigated lots of fatal vehicle accidents, and many more in which there were very serious, life-threatening, and sometimes permanently disabling injuries; a large percentage of those victims were not using a seat belt. You have also seen deaths and multiple severe injuries averted, almost certainly by the use of 3-point seat belts of Mr. Bohlin’s design.
So, we can probably figure that Mr. Bohlin’s and Volvo’s sacrifice of wealth saved you and tens of thousands of others officers a lot of work: fewer assignments to fatal and near-fatal accidents; less paperwork, less deployment of equipment to lug around; fewer insurance adjusters to have to talk to; less exposure to traffic on busy roads in all kinds of weather; fewer trips to hospitals and jails; fewer interviews; and, finally, the delivery of fewer death notifications to victims’ friends and families.
Did Volvo Car Company and Mr. Bohlin, respectively, make the right decision “when no one was looking”? They could have made a lot of money with that design, but decided not to.
If you choose to engage this question, you’ll get the most extra credit if you 1) approach the issues from the standpoint of the management of the Volvo Car Company; 2) address the conduct of the inventor, Mr. Bohlin; 3) consider the impact on the Volvo Company’s stockholders, and 4) assess the effect of Volvo’s and Mr. Bohlin’s decisions on law enforcement and public safety. There may be conflicts between these interests. Please analyze and discuss them.
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