Dan O’Dowd isn’t the first California tech titan to fund his own campaign for high political office. What makes him atypical is that he has no interest in winning the US Senate seat he is running for, or even challenging the other candidates running in the June 7 primary.
O’Dowd, a software entrepreneur who has worked on military, aerospace and other commercial contracts for 40 years, is rather frustrated with fellow tech entrepreneur Elon Musk, whom he accuses of endangering road safety with a driver assistance software package that he put in his Tesla electric cars.
O’Dowd does not deny that this is a surprisingly narrow platform to run for public office. He is also aware that there are risks as well as potential rewards in using a political campaign to go after the world’s richest man – especially now that Musk is making headlines as a potential new owner. from Twitter.
But O’Dowd is also unapologetic about being a single issue contender. His mission, he says, is to make sure government regulators get much tougher with the “move fast and break things” philosophy that has inspired Musk and many other tech pioneers over the past two decades. He’s spent $650,000 on advertising so far and looks set to spend a lot more over the next six weeks.
And, in his mind, it’s not just about Musk. O’Dowd believes the issues he’s documented with Tesla’s “fully self-driving” software package – issues that, according to publicly available video footage, have caused vehicles to unexpectedly veer into the wrong lane, turn the wrong way, crashing into poles and endangering other road users – are emblematic of a larger and increasingly serious problem.
In a world increasingly dependent on computers to run critical machinery, O’Dowd says, it’s vital that software is built as securely and reliably as possible, only Silicon Valley rarely sees it that way. If we can’t stop semi-autonomous cars from crashing into things, he explains, how are we supposed to protect our power grids, hospitals, office computers and other vital systems from cyberattacks and other threats?
O’Dowd has spent his career aspiring to create “software that never fails and cannot be hacked” for projects such as fighter jets, nuclear bombers and a space exploration vehicle for NASA, so the question is deeply personal to him.
“The big picture,” he said, “is about software and computers in general. It’s about making computers safe for humanity.
Political analysts racked their brains on this ground from the moment O’Dowd announced his late entry into the Senate race on April 19. Was this really a politically motivated campaign, they asked, or just a branding exercise to boost the business of O’Dowd’s Santa Barbara-based company, Green Hills Software, whose customers include several of Tesla’s auto manufacturing rivals, including General Motors, BMW and Daimler?
Was O’Dowd targeting Tesla because he genuinely thought it was behaving worse than the dozens of other companies working to develop a self-driving car, or was he simply relying on Musk’s name recognition to attract media attention?
“It’s unusual for a campaign to be so singularly focused on a very low-key business issue,” said Dan Weiner, director of elections and government program at the Brennan Center for Justice. “You could say it’s the apotheosis of a system in which corporate interests have carte blanche to engage in the political process.”
O’Dowd insisted his campaign had nothing to do with personal business interest. On the contrary, he said, he found Tesla’s “fully autonomous” software package more alarming than any other commercial use because it was, in his own words, “incredibly terrible” – an automotive guidance system which, according to his analysis goes wrong. every eight minutes, whereas similar experimental guidance systems run by competitors, including Google subsidiary Waymo, typically travel tens of thousands of miles before encountering problems. O’Dowd also dismissed the idea, promoted by Tesla, that such problems can be fixed by patching software with online upgrades.
His analysis is far from a consensus position in the industry. Many experts say everyone struggles with the problem of producing a reliable self-driving car, and the problem of cybersecurity – making sure a bad actor can’t take over a fleet of tens of thousands of cars via its operating software – is particularly vexing on all levels.
Chris Clark, a software security expert at Synopsys, a California-based company that tests software and designs computer systems for the automotive industry, said he didn’t think the announcement of O’ Dowd, pointing to the dysfunction of Tesla’s “full self-driving” plus program, was particularly accurate.
“You could do a similar video on just about any other company,” he said, adding that by his count, the number of companies working on a self-driving car was close to 300.” It’s an industry-wide challenge… The driver is always supposed to be alert and protect the vehicle if they do something unexpected.
Clark also took issue with O’Dowd’s argument that government regulators aren’t focusing enough on road safety as automakers become increasingly experimental with their automated features. “Yeah, it’s the Wild West,” he said, “but there are sheriffs in town making sure the industry is doing what it can to protect consumers.”
The federal National Highway Transport Safety Administration and the California Department of Motor Vehicles are investigating Tesla’s driver enhancement software following a series of documented malfunctions. Meanwhile, Lena Gonzalez, the chair of the California state senate transportation committee, is pushing to close a loophole that exempts Tesla from reporting crash data on its “complete self-driving” package. “Senator Gonzalez believes the protection of California drivers is of the utmost importance,” her office said in a statement.
It’s unclear what else O’Dowd thinks government regulators should be doing, or how he can further his cause by running for a Senate seat that incumbent Alex Padilla is expected to easily win. It is more common for influential industry players to lobby the government directly (O’Dowd said he has tried) and, if that fails, to sponsor a ballot initiative calling for a specific change. of public policy.
O’Dowd said, “I didn’t think of a ballot initiative.”
O’Dowd has been eloquent about the urgent need to use the highest quality software to build critical infrastructure – a theme he has spent years embedding in a public campaign he calls Project Dawn. But he’s struggled to achieve that lofty goal by focusing on petty online feuds, in which Musk’s supporters accuse him of being slow, disconnected and worse, and he counters that Musk’s cars are driven by “artificial stupidity”.
Musk himself tried his hand at O’Dowd in January, after the Dawn Project ran a full-page advertisement in the New York Times attacking him. “Green Hills software is a bunch of garbage”, Musk tweeted back. He has remained silent ever since.