August 12, 2022
Enlarge / Dan O’Dowd’s campaign wants the link to Ralph Nader’s safety campaign to be explicit.

Dan O’Dowd

Single-issue candidates for the US Senate aren’t the usual fodder for Ars’ car coverage, but it seems like an exception might exist for Dan O’Dowd. O’Dowd, an engineer and CEO of a software company, is running for one of California’s Senate seats on a platform to ban Tesla’s “Full Self-Driving” feature.

Tesla’s stratospheric valuation owes a fair amount to the company’s futuristic-sounding FSD feature, which promises a truly autonomous car that could even work the streets while its owner sleeps. But the company’s progress has been rocky, switching compute platforms and ditching sensors while trying to match the functionality of older Teslas built with simpler but more robust advanced driving assistance systems.

FSD is an important money-maker for Tesla, however. In January Tesla CEO Elon Musk told investors that “full-self-driving will become the most important source of profitability for Tesla.” And the company has repeatedly raised the price for the feature—what started as a $6,000 option in 2019 is now a $12,000 option.

But the bit that apparently galled O’Dowd into action is the fact that Tesla owners are testing beta versions of the FSD software on public roads.

O’Dowd’s campaign page even makes the distinction between Tesla Autopilot with FSD, stating that “this experimental Beta software relies on external cameras and sensors in an attempt to detect obstacles, vehicles, road markings and most crucially, pedestrians, rather than the judgment of its driver. Most decisions, such as controlling speed, are made by the vehicle’s computer, without the driver’s input.”

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According to his campaign materials, O’Dowd’s background is in developing secure software for weapons systems like the B-1B, and he claims to have recently built an unhackable laptop for the FBI. He also founded the Dawn Project, which advocates for replacing all critical infrastructure with software that cannot fail and can never be hacked—a worthy if perhaps Sisyphean goal.

O’Dowd and the Dawn Project claim that every eight minutes, a Tesla running FSD commits a critical driving error—making contact with an object, disobeying traffic signs or signals, disobeying safety personnel or vehicles, or making dangerous maneuvers that cause others to have to take evasive action. O’Dowd’s campaign also claims that safety defects in FSD cause malfunctions about once every 36 minutes in city driving.

Rather than leaving it up to journalists to make parallels with Ralph Nader’s 1965 safety campaign to fix the handling problems with the Chevrolet Corvair, O’Dowd’s campaign is doing it explicitly with an advertisement called Unsafe at Any Speed. And the ad—which includes a compilation of FSD’s more embarrassing moments from YouTube—will even air nationally. O’Dowd is buying airtime in 36 states, even though only Californian voters have the option of ticking his box.