Meet the reclusive software billionaire who attacks Elon Musk

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“Trillion Dollar Ponzi Scheme.”

“Deep flaws.”

“Unsafe.”

TV ads for Dan O’Dowd, a software billionaire running as a Democrat for the California Senate, aren’t your typical campaign spots. To an extraordinary degree, they are all aimed at one topic: Tesla’s automated driving software. Not to his putative opponent, Senator Alex Padilla, the incumbent Democrat.

O’Dowd’s campaign slogan is “Make computers safe for mankind”. Tesla’s computers, he claims, are not.

“The problem of the last five or ten years is that we’ve taken everything our lives depend on and loaded computers with it,” O’Dowd said in an interview. “So now our power grid, our cars, or our dams, or bridges, hospitals – everything has been put into computers that have been loaded with everything.”

He added: “And a lot of the software that’s been used to do that is really shoddy.”

O’Dowd’s original focus, he said, is Tesla’s comprehensive self-driving software, which he says should never have been allowed on the road.

“The software that drives the cars that millions of people will depend on should be our best software, the most carefully designed and tested software,” he said. “Instead, we use literally the worst software.”

O’Dowd also ran a paid ad in a print edition of The New York Times, titled “Don’t Be a Tesla Crash Test Dummy”. The ad promotes The Dawn Project, O’Dowd’s website highlighting his expertise as a software engineer for projects including the Boeing 787 and the Lockheed Martin F-35 fighter jet.

Some of O’Dowd’s critics have questioned the motives of his anti-Tesla campaign. Automakers use its company’s software in various components and systems, including automated driving systems.

For Democrats, Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla, is an inviting political career.

Over the past few weeks, Musk has been sharing his unsolicited thoughts on politics, free speech, ‘cancel culture’, his ‘hardcore litigation department’ and anything else that seems to cross his mind on Twitter. . He denounced the Democratic Party as the party of “division and hatred” and said he would now “vote Republican”.

Musk’s engagement in public debate has cost him dearly. Tesla’s stock price has fallen nearly $400 since news emerged in early April that it had taken a stake in Twitter, which it has since agreed to buy.

Tesla did not respond to a request for comment for this article. On its website, the company says its fully autonomous driving system requires “active driver supervision” and does not “make the vehicle autonomous.”

But Musk has sometimes hinted otherwise. “I’m very confident the car will drive itself for better than human reliability this year,” he said in January 2021. “That’s a really big deal.”

When I asked O’Dowd why he chose the unorthodox route of running for office, rather than starting a nonprofit and just raising the issue in the public arena, he replied that he had already taken this approach.

“I’ve tried almost everything,” he says. “I tried to go to government, to regulators, to politicians, to the companies themselves.”

“I’ve been giving speeches for seven years, feeling pretty lonely,” he said. But now that his crusade against Tesla has received widespread media coverage, he added, “I didn’t feel so alone.”

If the state of California or another legal authority decrees that Tesla’s self-driving software is not ready for public use, it will “dry up,” he said.

But for now, O’Dowd is willing to spend “whatever it takes” to achieve his goal of taking him off the market, he said. “A whole series of other commercials” are in preparation.

“I don’t have a budget,” he says evenly.

O’Dowd is entirely self-funding his campaign. He has already spent nearly $3.5 million on ads, far more than any other candidate in the race. His campaign manager is Jon Blair, a seasoned Democratic strategist who once helped elect Gina Raimondo, the former governor of Rhode Island.

He also hired Mark Putnam, a Democratic ad maker whose company became well known for making wispy biographical videos for the candidates, including spots for Amy McGrath and MJ Hegar that helped propel them into the limelight. nationals.

Putnam’s advertisements for O’Dowd exhibit many of the traits that have made him one of the most sought-after creative minds in his field: emotional urgency, first-person testimonials, and compelling imagery. For a non-traditional campaign topic, they are quite striking.

Putnam’s most recent ad, the one accusing Musk of running a “Ponzi scheme,” is nearly two minutes long – an extraordinary indulgence for most campaigns.

But O’Dowd’s operation is not like most campaigns. It does not employ an official pollster, although it has commissioned polls. It does not hold campaign rallies or rope walks, although it has held meetings with small groups of voters, interest groups and elected officials to voice its concerns.

O’Dowd benefits from federal regulations that require broadcasters to offer deep discounts to qualified applicants for public office. Had he implemented a super PAC or other vehicle to secure his ads, broadcasters would have had more leeway to refuse them or charge high rates.

But there’s nothing untoward about what he’s doing, campaign law experts said.

“It’s not legally new to campaign on a single issue, even when that issue is hyper-focused,” said Adav Noti, vice president and chief legal officer of the Campaign Legal Center. “The law is pretty agnostic as to what candidates choose to focus on.”

The primary will take place on June 7. Due to California’s unique election laws, under which the top two qualify for the general election, O’Dowd could be one-on-one with Padilla in the fall.

O’Dowd doesn’t say it explicitly, but he’s not trying to win, exactly.

“I will limit myself to these questions very carefully,” he said. “And I’m going to tell people, you should vote for me if you think that’s the bigger issue.”

O’Dowd insisted that his company, Green Hills Software, is not a competitor to Tesla.

“We don’t make self-driving cars,” he said, adding that some automakers use his software in some low-level components. “It’s none of our business.”

Green Hills highlights its expertise in manufacturing specialized software used in automated driving systems. Its website says its code is used in “hundreds of millions of vehicles”.

The New York Times has reported extensively on the shortcomings of Musk’s push for fully self-driving cars, including in a recent documentary film.

In February, Tesla recalled 54,000 of its cars for disabling a feature in its software that allowed vehicles to make rolling stops in certain cases. There are entire websites dedicated to documenting deaths involving Teslas, including those where driver assistance features have been proven to be involved.

When we spoke in late April, O’Dowd said he hadn’t spoken to Musk about his concerns — but not for lack of trying. “I made three or four efforts to do this through mutual friends,” O’Dowd said. “Trust me, he knows who I am. He knows what I’m doing. And he’s not interested.


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On Politics regularly features work by photographers from The Times. Here’s what Doug Mills told us about capturing the image above:

The photo was taken during a press conference in Tokyo with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, just after President Biden said he was ready to defend Taiwan with military force, if necessary. At that moment, the president was considering another matter, but the reporters in the room were buzzing – everyone knew he had just made the news for the day.

And here’s what Erin Schaff had to say about this beautiful church in Ecuador:

I was the only pool photographer for the first lady’s six-day visit to Latin America. She traveled to Ecuador, Panama and Costa Rica, on a mission to reaffirm American commitment to the region ahead of the Summit of the Americas, to be held in June in Los Angeles.

There is a little more freedom for the first lady than there is for the president. From a photography perspective, it was fun to watch her interact with kids and meet various other first ladies and see a bit of her personality.

This Jesuit church that we visited in the main square of Quito, Ecuador, is a famous example of Baroque architecture from the colonial era. Locals simply call it “La Compañía”. When we walked in there was a pianist playing “Ave Maria”. It was very dark inside, so I had to use a slower shutter speed to capture the golden glow emanating from the walls. It was a very beautiful moment.

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