Category Archives: Tesla autopilot

Can Autopilot survive sue-happy USA? Part II

On Christmas day, 2015, TeslaMondo predicted that Americans would soon start suing Tesla for inflicting Autopilot on the poor public. That same post introduced y’all to Sean Kane, the “safety advocate” who poses as a dry analyst and often gets nose-picking reporters to fall for his ruse — even though he’s on the plaintiff payroll.

Well, it took a little over a year, but here comes the litigation. The lawyer is Steve Berman as usual. He pursued, with the emphasis on the “sued” part, the farcical sudden-acceleration cases against Toyota despite the NHTSA and even NASA finding zero defects. Toyota predictably settled many of those cases out of court. Ka-ching! Now that Tesla has money, it’s time to grab some. Stand and deliver, Mr. Musk.

And, of course, here comes Sean Kane, right on cue. Are Kane and Berman talking to each other behind the scenes, plotting a little PR campaign to dial in some pressure on Tesla? You can bet on it. Look for some juicy sound bites from “safety advocate” Kane.

Further reading: Part One.

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This fake turmoil sets stage for lawsuits

Criswell predicts TeslaMondoCan Autopilot survive sue-happy USA? That’s what TeslaMondo pondered last year. Well, let’s look at the current conditions:

High-profile accident? Check.
Hyperbolic headlines? Check.
Consumer advocates chiming in? Check.
Regulators chiming in ? Check.
Congress chiming in ? Check.

All that’s missing now are the opportunistic lawsuits. TeslaMondo predicts a settlement-seeking lawsuit within a month, claiming Tesla was reckless in deploying Autopilot. Followed immediately by polished sound bites from plaintiff lawyers and their bespoke safety advocate, Sean Kane from Safety Research & Strategies.

In short, there’s blood in the water. Musk should NOT testify before any Congressional committee right now, for his every word will be replayed in court.

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Prophetic Toyota totally wrong again

Criswell predicts TeslaMondoNow that autonomous driving has entered adolescence, complete with odor and zits, it’s time to revisit a year-old quote from none other than Akio Toyoda, as he tisk-tisked Tesla about Autopilot: “If there is a major accident involving automated driving, technological advancement will stop suddenly.”

Yesterday we learned of a major accident involving automated driving.

Yet today, Mobileye, BMW and Intel announced aggressive plans to push forward. Even Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx chimed in and said it’s full throttle for regulatory work due to the full-throttle pace of the technology. It has not stopped suddenly. In fact, contrary to TeslaMondo’s headline from yesterday, it hasn’t even hit a chicane.

So, was Akio Toyoda just trying to sprinkle ants into Tesla’s picnic basket last year, or did he really believe what he said? Backing up the camera a little more, did Toyota’s Takeshi Uchiyamada really believe his words a few years back when he said Toyota sees no market in pure electric vehicles, or was he, too, trying to marginalize Tesla?

Toyota’s misreads are looming large. The company has now unwillingly passed the baton to Tesla as the real tech leader. The Prius, which isn’t selling for shit despite its new suit — or maybe because of its new suit — will go down in history as the last example of Toyota’s once ironclad tech leadership.

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Can Autopilot survive sue-happy USA?

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”:

LA Times

NBC News

ABC News

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?*

Kane at union protestJust 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?

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Good ol’ cruise control was once scary

Auto-Pilot TeslaMondo

Tesla nominally shares technology with a 1958 Imperial.

Not because it had a “mind of its own,” but because drivers misused it. According some believable tall tales, people turned on cruise control* and then crawled into the back seat to get things, or take naps, confident in the “Auto-Pilot.” Yes, that’s what cruise was called in its infancy.

So some skittishness around Tesla’s Autopilot, justified or not, is to be expected. We’ve been here before. Every incremental step in automotive autonomy will agitate the debate about whether we can trust our fellow drivers, and the technology itself.

There is no ideal time to introduce Autopilot. October 2015 is as good, or bad, as any. Waiting until it’s perfect is not an option. It will become perfect, or near perfect, only with real-world use.

Let’s just hope we don’t see an Autopilot disaster on YouTube. The Internet can now turn one misfortune into an interminable horror movie. Remember the Toyota acceleration farce of 2009 to 2011? It began with audio of a 911 call broadcast on the ‘net, and then on ABC News with Brian Ross, and then in plaintiff lawyers’ wet dreams for several years. Imagine if there were a dashcam video? We’d STILL be talking about those possessed Toyotas.

TeslaMondo has already predicted autonomous cars will at the very least invite hanky-panky. Idle hands are the Devil’s workshop, you know. While some fear Tesla and Mobileye will have blood on their hands due to an Autopilot accident, TeslaMondo thinks it will be some other bodily fluid.

*History of cruise control.

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Middle adopters likely budged today

Early adopters already have EVs and don’t have range anxiety. Late adopters haven’t arrived yet. We’ll meet them circa 2020. It’s the middle adopters — the fence-sitters, the people who believe in the product but also believe in Murphy’s Law, the ones who tend to start sentences by saying, “With my luck . . . ” — those are the folks may finally click the “Buy” button after today’s press conference. “That Tesla car is foolproof now? I’m in.” A little psychological nudge is all it takes to get middle adopters over the tipping point.

Want an example? The Prius. The first generation captured early adopters. The second generation “tipped” the middle adopters not with a big wow feature, but with incremental improvements in fuel economy, cargo space and winter road grip — a series of updates. Okay, so the Model S is still a first-generation car — but only on the outside. It has molted many times over on the inside. It’s a different creature. It might as well be considered second or even third generation.

The impact on TSLA shares today? A negation of a two-day anticipatory rally. Oh well. It took a while to digest the impact of the dual-motor car. It will take a while to digest today’s revelations also. Contrary to some comments today, Elon was wise to call a press conference instead of quietly issuing yet another OTA. He drove the point home to middle adopters that Tesla constantly and relentlessly improves the product even as it sits in your driveway. This makes an S-Class seem like a throwaway.

On deck: Home battery. Let’s see if Tesla can create excitement over a big flat thing that doesn’t move, yet promises to move vast amounts of $$ into Tesla’s bank account.

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