February 3, 2023
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O’Dowd’s fight against Tesla, Musk continues

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Dan O’Dowd

Elon Musk has been making headlines, mostly at his expense, nearly every day since his $44 billion purchase of Twitter. But for Dan O’Dowd, Musk’s Tesla software is no laughing matter.

It has been nearly a year since Dan O’Dowd took out his first full-page newspaper advertisement, highlighting his disdain for Tesla’s assisted-driving technology. But the 63-year-old is just getting started, he recently told the Business Times.

“We haven’t succeeded yet in getting this off the road,” O’Dowd said of his continuing campaign.

“We are up against a PR giant. Never spent a dime on marketing or advertising or anything, it’s all just his thing… all I knew it was going to not happen fast because he’s who he is.”
Just a couple of weeks ago, Tesla expanded access to its full self-driving beta, or FSD, now available to anyone in North America who requests it from the Tesla car screen, Musk said in a tweet.

FSD is an extension of Tesla’s Autopilot driver-assist feature, expanding on the latter with automated functions like automated steering in cities, automatic parking, smart vehicle summoning and traffic light/stop sign recognition. 

The feature is a paid upgrade priced at $15,000, up from $3,000 in September.

O’Dowd has made many efforts to show the pitfalls of this technology.

Earlier this year, he launched The Dawn Project, which has created many videos and circulated studies highlighting the alleged deficiencies with Tesla’s FSD feature.

These videos have appeared on television stations all over the country, grabbing the attention of viewers and, evidently, Musk and Tesla.

In August, O’Dowd received a cease-and-desist letter from Tesla’s attorneys, alleging the ads O’Dowd has produced criticizing the safety of Tesla’s autopilot features were both “defamatory” and misrepresented the company’s driver-assistance features.

The advertisement in question showed a Tesla Model 3 hitting a child-sized mannequin while full-self-driving mode was engaged.

According to O’Dowd, who was on the scene overseeing the test, the Tesla did not stop at all. He attempted it four times, and all four times the Tesla ran over the child-sized mannequin, which was dressed up to have the appearance of a small child.

The letter from Tesla demands that the campaign stop and that the videos be taken down from the internet. Tesla did not respond to an interview request.

O’Dowd said nothing has happened since receiving the C&D, and he has made it clear he has no intention of backing down.

“He could sue me, but I can afford thousand-dollar lawyers and stand up to hm,” O’Dowd, founder of Green Hills Software, said.

In recent months, O’Dowd said the feature has led him down the wrong way of a one-way street “multiple times,” ignores speed limits in school zones with kids present, turns into oncoming lanes of traffic and doesn’t know how to make safe turns on jagged edges, which are present in Santa Barbara.

“I don’t understand how it is we are shipping this commercial product to hundreds of thousands of cars, two-ton cars that can go 100 plus miles an hour, and we’re turning it over to an artificial intelligence that doesn’t know how to drive a car,” O’Dowd said

O’Dowd said a big part of his original strategy was to endure the backlash he would receive online from Musk’s followers.

Ranging from personal insults to more worrisome threats, O’Dowd said not many people stood up to Musk dating back even a year ago in fear of these responses.

But, “now that’s changed,” O’Dowd said, especially in the aftermath of Musk’s handling of Twitter after its purchase. 

Since taking over, advertisers have left the site, hundreds of workers have been fired and overall, the site has been keener to make fun of the billionaire.

“I hope I had something to do with it because it was part of my strategy to stand up to it,” O’Dowd said.

But it’s not all jokes at his expense. There has also been serious outrage over some of his decisions, including the site’s temporary ban on multiple journalists.

Organizations such as SABEW, the Society for Advancing Business Editing and Writing, have stepped up by calling on Musk to “restore freedom of speech to its platform after arbitrarily shutting down the accounts of several journalists, including those from SABEW member organizations.”

Many of those users have had their accounts restored over the past week.=

“People are now questioning all these things he says that people were believing a year ago because they didn’t hear any opposition. Now, they are hearing opposition,” O’Dowd said.

But Tesla’s assisted driver feature is still on the road, and O’Dowd won’t stop running advertisements, both in print and on TV, until it is off, he said.

O’Dowd pictures a few ways this could happen.

The first is the simplest, which is that once drivers see how bad the technology is, people will simply not purchase it and it will slowly die off.

Another is that if the product is out on the street enough, the government could get involved if the technology is dangerous enough.

The NHTSA released a report in June tracking the safety of advanced driver assistance. Tesla’s electric vehicles were involved in 70% of the reported crashes involving Level 2 technologies — those that allow a car to take over while the driver is still behind the wheel in case of problems. Tesla accounted for 60% of the incidents that resulted in serious injuries and nearly 85% of the fatal ones, TechCrunch reported.

But, more importantly, O’Dowd claims, is that other companies have already done assisted driving way better, and it simply has beaten Tesla to the market.

In San Francisco, driverless taxis have already been introduced. O’Dowd said this technology will make its way to Los Angeles soon and then possibly one day hit smaller cities like Santa Barbara.

“Tesla has no place to go with this product. It’s not viable for the market it was designed for, everybody else beat them,” O’Dowd said.

“In San Francisco, apparently when people talk to you, they say you can hardly go anywhere without seeing them, but anywhere else, in Santa Barbara or Los Angeles or Chicago, you’ve never seen them. But they will be at some point and people just realize that Tesla is so far behind, it’s ridiculous.”