California tech titan’s Senate run has one target: Tesla’s self-driving software

Dan O’Dowd is hardly the first California tech titan to bankroll his own campaign for high political office. What makes him unusual is that he has no interest in winning the US Senate seat he is vying for, or even in challenging the other candidates competing in the 7 June primary.

O’Dowd, a software entrepreneur with a 40-year history of working on military, aerospace and other commercial contracts, is running, rather, out of frustration at his fellow tech entrepreneur, Elon Musk, whom he accuses of endangering road safety with a driver assistance software package he’s put in his Tesla electric cars.

O’Dowd doesn’t deny that this is a strikingly narrow platform on which to run for public office. He’s aware, too, that there are risks as well as potential rewards in using a political campaign to take a swing at the world’s richest man – especially now that Musk is dominating headlines as the prospective new owner of Twitter.

But O’Dowd is also unapologetic about being a single-issue candidate. His mission, he says, is to ensure that government regulators become much tougher with the “move fast and break things” ethos that has inspired Musk and many other tech pioneers over the past two decades. He’s spent $650,000 on advertising so far and seems poised to spend a lot more over the next six weeks.

Portrait of Dan O'Dowd, a man with glasses wearing a dark suit and tie.
Dan O’Dowd is running for US Senate, but has no interest in winning. Photograph: Courtesy Dan O’Dowd Senate Campaign

And, in his mind, it’s not just about Musk. O’Dowd believes that the problems he’s documented with Tesla’s “full self-driving” software package – problems that, according to publicly available video footage, have caused vehicles to veer unexpectedly into the wrong lane, turn the wrong way, crash into poles and endanger other road users – are emblematic of a broader and increasingly serious problem.

In a world increasingly dependent on computers to run critical machinery, O’Dowd says, it’s vital that the 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 crashing into things, he argues, how are we supposed to keep our power grids, hospitals, office computers and other vital systems safe from cyber attack and other threats?

O’Dowd has spent his career aspiring to build “software that never fails and can’t be hacked” for projects including fighter jets, nuclear bombers and a space exploration vehicle for Nasa, so the issue is deeply personal to him.

“The bigger picture,” he said, “is about software and computers in general. It’s about making computers safe for humanity.”

Political analysts have been scratching their heads over this pitch from the moment O’Dowd announced his late entry into the Senate race on 19 April. Was this really a politically motivated campaign, they asked, or just a branding exercise to drum up business for O’Dowd’s Santa Barbara-based company, Green Hills Software, and whose clients include several of Tesla’s car making rivals including General Motors, BMW and Daimler?

Elon Musk holds a microphone with a Tesla logo on it.
Dan O’Dowd has accused his fellow tech entrepreneur of endangering road safety. Photograph: Aly Song/Reuters

Was O’Dowd targeting Tesla because he really thought it was behaving worse than the dozens of other companies working to develop a self-driving car, or was he merely piggy-backing on Musk’s name recognition to attract media attention?

“It’s unusual for a campaign to be so singularly focused on a very discrete commercial issue,” said Dan Weiner, director of the elections and government program at the Brennan Center for Justice. “You could say this is the apotheosis of a system in which corporate interests have free rein to engage with the political process.”

O’Dowd insisted that his campaign had nothing to do with commercial self-interest. Rather, he said, he found Tesla’s “full self-driving” software package more alarming than anything else in commercial use because it was, in his words, “amazingly terrible” – a car guidance system that, according to his analysis, goes wrong every eight minutes, whereas similarly experimental guidance systems run by competitors including the Google subsidiary Waymo typically go tens of thousands of miles before encountering problems. O’Dowd was similarly dismissive of the notion, promoted by Tesla, that such problems can be fixed by patching the software with online upgrades.

His analysis is far from a consensus position in the industry. Many experts say that everyone is struggling to crack the problem of producing a reliable self-driving car and that the problem of cybersecurity – making sure a bad actor cannot gain control of a fleet of tens of thousands of cars through their operating software – is a particularly vexing one across the board.

Chris Clark, a software security expert with Synopsys, a California company that tests software and designs computer systems for the car industry, said he did not think O’Dowd’s rollout campaign ad, showing the Tesla “full self-driving” program malfunctioning over and over, was especially fair.

“You could make a similar video about just about any other company out there,” he said, adding that by his count the number of enterprises working on a self-driving car was close to 300. “This is an industry-wide challenge … The driver is always supposed to be paying attention and protect the vehicle if it does something unexpected.”

Clark also took issue with O’Dowd’s argument that government regulators are not focusing enough on road safety as car companies grow increasingly experimental with their automated features. “Yes, it is the wild west,” he said, “but there are sheriffs in town to ensure the industry does what it can to protect consumers.”

An image of a Tesla steering wheel and the dashboard, where the self-driving feature is shown.
According to Dan O’Dowd’s analysis, Tesla’s self-driving feature goes wrong every eight minutes. Photograph: Bloomberg/Getty Images

Both the federal National Highway Transport Safety Administration and the California Department of Motor Vehicles are investigating Tesla’s driver enhancement software following a flurry of documented malfunctions. Meanwhile, Lena Gonzalez, the chair of the transportation committee in the California state senate, is pushing to close a loophole whereby Tesla is exempted from reporting crash data on its “full self-driving” package. “Senator Gonzalez believes protecting California drivers is of the utmost importance,” her office said in a statement.

It’s not entirely clear what else O’Dowd thinks government regulators should be doing, or how he can further his cause by running for a senate seat that the incumbent, Alex Padilla, is expected to win easily. It’s more common for influential industry players to lobby government directly (O’Dowd said he’s tried), and if that fails, to sponsor a ballot initiative calling for a specific change in public policy.

O’Dowd said: “I didn’t think of a ballot initiative.”

O’Dowd was eloquent about the urgent need to use the highest grade software to build critical infrastructure – a theme he has spent years building into a public campaign he calls the Dawn Project. But he struggled to square that lofty goal with his focus on petty online squabbles, in which Musk supporters accuse him of being slow, out of touch, and worse, and he fires back that Musk’s cars are being driven by “artificial stupidity”.

Musk himself had a go at O’Dowd in January, after the Dawn Project took out a full-page advertisement in the New York Times to attack him. “Green Hills software is a pile of trash,” Musk tweeted back. He has kept quiet ever since.