“Trillion-Dollar Ponzi Scheme.”
The television ads for Dan O’Dowd, a software billionaire running as a Democrat for Senate in California, are not your typical campaign spots. To an extraordinary degree, they’re all aimed at one topic: Tesla’s automated driving software. Not at his putative opponent, Senator Alex Padilla, the incumbent Democrat.
O’Dowd’s campaign slogan is “Making Computers Safe for Humanity.” Tesla’s computers, he claims, are not.
“The problem of the last five or 10 years has been that we’ve been taking everything that our lives depend on and putting computers in charge of it,” O’Dowd said in an interview. “So now our power grid, our cars, or our dams, or bridges, hospitals — everything has been put in computers that have been put in charge of everything.”
He added: “And a lot of the software that was used to do that is very poor quality.”
O’Dowd’s initial focus, he said, is on Tesla’s full self-driving software, which he says should have never been allowed on the road.
“The software that drives cars that are going to have millions of people depending on it should be our best software, the most carefully designed and tested software,” he said. “Instead we’re using literally the worst software.”
O’Dowd also ran a paid ad in a print edition of The New York Times, headlined “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 like the Boeing 787 and the Lockheed Martin F-35 fighter jet.
Some of O’Dowd’s critics have questioned the motives behind his anti-Tesla campaign. Car companies use his company’s software in various components and systems, including automated driving systems.
Musk enters the arena
For Democrats, Elon Musk, Tesla’s founder, makes for an inviting political quarry.
In recent weeks, Musk has shared 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 has bashed the Democratic Party as the party of “division and hate” and said that he will now “vote Republican.”
Musk’s engagement in public debate has cost him dearly. The price of Tesla shares has dropped by nearly $400 since the news first emerged in early April that he had taken a stake in Twitter, which he has since agreed to purchase.
Tesla did not respond to a request for comment for this article. On its website, the company says that its full self-driving system requires “active driver supervision” and does not “make the vehicle autonomous.”
But Musk has at times implied otherwise. “I’m highly confident the car will drive itself for the reliability in excess of a human this year,” he said in January 2021. “This is a very big deal.”
‘I’ve tried nearly everything’
When I asked O’Dowd why he had taken the unorthodox route of running for office, rather than starting a nonprofit and simply raising the issue in the public arena, he said he had taken that approach already.
“I’ve tried nearly everything,” he said. “I’ve tried going to the government, to the regulators, to the politicians, to the companies themselves.”
“I’ve been giving speeches for seven years, feeling rather lonely,” he said. But now that his crusade against Tesla has gotten extensive coverage, he added, “I’ve not been feeling so lonely.”
If the state of California or some other legal authority decrees that Tesla’s self-driving software is not ready for public use, he’ll “shut up,” he said.
But for now, O’Dowd is willing to spend “whatever it takes” to achieve his goal of taking it off the market, he said. “A whole raft of more commercials” are in the works.
“I don’t have a budget,” he said matter-of-factly.
No pollsters, no rallies
O’Dowd is fully 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 veteran Democratic strategist who previously helped elect Gina Raimondo, the former governor of Rhode Island.
He’s also hired Mark Putnam, a Democratic ad-maker whose firm has become well-known for making gauzy biographical videos for candidates, including spots for Amy McGrath and M.J. Hegar that helped launch them into the national spotlight.
Putnam’s ads for O’Dowd feature 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 footage. For a nontraditional campaign subject, they’re fairly arresting.
Putnam’s most recent ad, the one that accuses 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. He doesn’t employ an official pollster, though he has commissioned polls. He is not holding campaign rallies or walking rope lines, though he has held meetings with small groups of voters, interest groups and elected officials to air his concerns.
O’Dowd benefits from federal regulations that require broadcasters to provide steep discounts to qualified candidates for public office. Had he set up a super PAC or some other vehicle to underwrite his ads, broadcasters would have had more leeway to refuse them, or to charge hefty rates.
But there’s nothing untoward about what he is doing, experts on campaign law said.
“It’s not legally novel to run a single-issue campaign, even when that issue is hyper-focused,” said Adav Noti, vice president and legal director of the Campaign Legal Center. “The law is pretty agnostic as to what candidates choose to focus on.”
The primary is coming up on June 7. Because of California’s unique election laws, under which the top two finishers advance to the general election, O’Dowd could be in a head-to-head matchup with Padilla in the fall.
O’Dowd does not say so explicitly, but he is not trying to win, exactly.
“I’m going to limit myself to these issues very carefully,” he said. “And I’m going to tell people, you should vote for me if you think this is the biggest problem.”
‘Trust me, he knows who I am’
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 car companies were using its software in certain low-level components. “That’s not our business.”
Green Hills promotes its expertise in making specialized software used in automated driving systems. Its website says that 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 autonomous cars, including in a recent documentary film.
In February, Tesla recalled 54,000 of its cars to disable a feature of its software that allowed the vehicles to make rolling stops in some cases. There are entire websites devoted to documenting deaths involving Teslas, including those where driver-assistance features were proved to have been involved.
When we spoke in late April, O’Dowd said he had not spoken to Musk about his concerns — though not for lack of trying. “I’ve made three or four endeavors to do so through mutual friends,” O’Dowd said. “Trust me, he knows who I am. He knows what I do. And he’s not interested.”
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