American motorists fall into two categories: current plaintiffs and future plaintiffs. We like to sue. In fact, we sue better than we drive. The Audi acceleration fiasco of the 1980s and the Toyota acceleration fiasco of 2009-2011 never left American shores despite worldwide use of the same vehicles. Well, fast-forward to now. If so-called “hackable” cars are already facing nuisance suits, autonomous driving is on a whole ‘nuther level. It could bring a litigation beat-down to any company that dares pioneer it.
The plaintiffs’ bar is already backstage, bobbing and weaving, anticipating the opening bell. So are the legal defense teams at auto companies big and small. So are journalists. So is the NHTSA. And so is Sean Kane, the press-savvy “safety advocate” who is quite unloved by car companies.
Tesla has now entered Kane’s vocabulary. He mentions Autopilot near the end of this warm-up post about autonomous motoring. It’s just a casual mention, but look for this subject to become a lot less casual very soon. Lawyers have to eat, you know, and so does Kane. The first high-profile accident involving Autopilot, and that means ANY accident, and the plaintiff tales of woe shall begin. Kane’s post ends with an implication that driverless cars run the risk of merely transferring crucial mistakes from the driver’s seat to the programmers behind the algorithms. They might be “the new problem.” This is quite appropriate foreshadowing by Kane, for that’s exactly who will be dragged into court to explain why a car mistook a puddle for a hole and slammed on the brakes.
Wait. Sean who? And why does he deserve such a long post on a site that favors brevity?
He’s the new Nader. He was the man behind the curtain during the Ford/Firestone and Toyota acceleration debacles. And he’ll undoubtedly orchestrate the light and sound show for the first wave of autonomous driving lawsuits. He runs Safety Research & Strategies in Massachusetts. Care to guess what kind of “strategies”? Litigation strategies would be an excellent guess. He’s paid by plaintiff attorneys, but he hates to say so because it erodes his neutrality, ergo his credibility. Journalists turn a blind eye to his pay stream when quoting him. His sound bites are just too darned good to resist. So journalists bill Kane as anything from “safety expert“ to “safety advocate” to “safety consultant,” thereby purifying their stories.
Behold the “safety expert”:
Kane even brings journalism awards to reporters. You may recall the Toyota unintended acceleration demonstration by ABC News with Brian Ross, featuring Kane’s paid contractor/professor. It was debunked as fake, but still won an Edward R. Murrow award for ABC News!? Remember all the scary headlines emanating from the LA Times, Well, Kane supplied the goods. The spook stories made the Times a Pulitzer finalist that year, though no electronic Bigfoot ever surfaced in Toyotas, even after a NHTSA/NASA endoscopy of Toyota products. Even the sticky-pedal recall, for which the Times patted itself on the back, proved a paper tiger. To date, there are still zero YouTube videos of a sticking pedal despite a Toyota on every corner, a camera in every hand, and a defect that was surely visible and repeatable in one’s driveway. But good stories win awards, and lots of good stories get their fodder from Mr. K.
Even Congress consulted Kane, for a while at least. Skip to 1:25:44 here to watch him finally get smoked out. Warning: It’s ugly. But that was a few years back. People forget. When the first autonomous driving lawsuits hit the press, and the inevitable Congressional hearings begin, Kane will once again get an invitation because, well, what other safety “experts” exist? If you’re answer is Clarence Ditlow or Ralph Nader, save that thought. We’ll get to them.
Kane’s pay stream doesn’t automatically render his work junk. Plaintiffs are sometimes in the right. What renders Kane’s work junk is the work itself. If the aforementioned ABC News folly is Exhibit A, then:
Exhibit B: Kane’s compilation of sudden unintended acceleration complaints against Toyota, which begins on page 53 here. If you copy and paste the entire thing into Word, and do a few keyword searches, you’ll quickly extract irrelevant complaints about hesitation, high idle, cruise control inaccuracy, pedal placement, air conditioning cycle, and the list goes on. Search for “hemroids” (sic) for a chuckle. Yes, a woman blames Toyota for exactly that. If it takes you just a few minutes to weed out this junk, why can’t a full-time professional gardener do it?
Exhibit C: The seminal accident that snowballed into the Toyota acceleration farce of 2009-2011 was the Lexus “911” crash in California. The police report shows a guy named Frank Bernard had just wrestled the very same car due a mismatched rubber mat pushing the throttle. Yet when Kane writes about the accident, on page 4 here, he totally omits Bernard. Why? Because Kane and his lawyer chums were banking on a much bigger and scarier electronic defect in Toyotas. Bernard was in the way, so POOF — he disappeared. Yes, Sean Kane, the relentless custodian of chapter & verse on sudden acceleration, the meticulous chronicler of countless consumer complaints, somehow has a blind spot for the most pivotal witness in the most impactful sudden acceleration incident of all time.
Exhibit D: When you’re on a mission to extract a settlement from a big company, you steer public opinion by any means necessary. If there’s a crowd and an open mike, well dammit you’d better take advantage of the opportunity to say something, anything, to help your case — er, your cause. Why else would Kane participate in an irrelevant UAW/Teamster protest about the closing of the NUMMI plant?*
Just keep Kane’s name in mind as both motoring and associated tort law approach a big shift. If Kane touches a news story about Tesla, Autopilot, or autonomous driving in general, file it in the proper mental folder, along with the guano from his agitator predecessors, Clarence Ditlow, Joan Claybrook and Ralph Nader. Ditlow and Nader still supply sound bites to the press, and they’ve already begun planting all the right seeds for autonomous driving litigation. Those guys aren’t paid by tort lawyers, at least not directly, but they suffer from the same credibility problem that afflicts Kane. Sure, they’ve ushered some genuine safety advances to market, some as elemental as airbags and seat belts, but they’ve also befouled public discourse for decades with lawsuit-friendly safety spooks that turn out to be nothing more than wet dreams for lawyers and hype-hungry journalists. Here’s a pretty good compilation of just such news stories.
The credibility shortfall of safety experts goes all the way back to the Chevy Corvair, the car killed by Nader. Years after Nader helped form the NHTSA, the agency commissioned Texas A&M University to test the Corvair. The conclusion? Nothing wrong with the car. Nader’s direct disciples, Ditlow and Claybrook, each have contributed to safer motoring — but have also made fools of themselves.
Ditlow gets as much airtime as Kane. When there’s no litigation in involved, Ditlow can function as objective observer. But when there’s blood in the water, he’s loco. Ditlow cheered the phony Dateline NBC story about exploding Chevy Silverado gas tanks, even after Jane Pauley and Stone Phillips read an on-air apology about faking the whole thing. He also co-authored “Sudden Acceleration — the Myth of Driver Error.” Oy!
Claybrook, the NHTSA chief under Jimmy Carter, railed against SUVs as “gussied-up pickup trucks” in 2003, a decade after the unibody crossover revolution had already yanked the very definition of “SUV” into Silly String. She also seriously proposed that motorcycles be force-fitted with side wheels to stabilize them. Oy!
Claybrook is now semi-retired. Ditlow still runs the Center for Auto Safety, Kane’s alma mater. The CAC website looks like a high school HTML project at best. Kane’s site, by contrast, is excellent. It even has fiery explosions. He pulls all the right levers behind his li’l curtain.
Best of all, he’s sacrosanct. Neither Ford nor Firestone nor Toyota really gave Kane a smackdown despite all the trouble he caused them. Toyota conducted a behind-the-scenes “message” test about how to counter him, but never acted on it. Kane is the dog nobody can kick because he plays Underdog to the big corporate villain.
Tesla’s CEO, however, was abandoned as a child and raised by wolverines. Annoying him could have far bloodier consequences. Ask Randall Stross.
Editor’s note: Some of this material appeared long ago in the comment section of this article, but mysteriously disappeared some years later, along with the responses to it, all of which were none-too-favorable to Kane. Odd, isn’t it? Well, now that Tesla has popped onto Kane’s radar, this seems the perfect time to put this stuff back on Google’s radar. Consider it a preemptive examination of a character we’re likely to encounter along the rocky road to autonomy, assuming we litigious Americans decide to put food on his table. Merry Xmas, Mr. K.
*Guess who bought that plant?