SAN FRANCISCO — Tesla is demanding an advocacy group take down videos of its vehicles striking child-size mannequins, alleging the footage is defamatory and misrepresents its most advanced driver-assistance software.
The commercial led to a surge of news articles and criticism of Tesla’s software, which is being tested in an early-release version by more than 100,000 users on public streets in countries including the United States and Canada. It also triggered blowback from Tesla supporters who said the test could have been manipulated. Some of them sought to re-create the demonstrations — sometimes involving real children — in an effort to show that Tesla’s software does actually work.
The back and forth is the latest escalation in an ongoing spat between Tesla’s vocal fan community and critics of its driver-assistance software.
Our new safety test of @ElonMusk’s Full Self-Driving Teslas discovered that they will indiscriminately mow down children.— Dan O'Dowd (@RealDanODowd) August 9, 2022
Today @RealDawnProject launches a nationwide TV ad campaign demanding @NHTSAgov ban Full Self-Driving until @ElonMusk proves it won’t mow down children. pic.twitter.com/i5Jtb38GjH
The man behind the Dawn Project, tech founder and billionaire Dan O’Dowd, has become an unlikely and controversial leader of the latter group. He runs Green Hills Software, which makes operating systems for airplanes and cars, potentially making him a competitor in the market for car software. He also ran for the U.S. Senate this year, and broadcast his videos on TV and online as campaign ads. (One such ad features reporting from The Washington Post, which was not involved.)
O’Dowd says his motivation for going after Tesla is a conviction that the tech, like many other pieces of software that people rely on in the modern world, isn’t safe enough and needs to be redesigned — and in this case needs to be banned.
“We have been busy hooking up and putting computers in charge of the things that millions of people’s lives depend on: self-driving cars is one of those,” O’Dowd said.
“Full Self-Driving” Beta is still in development and is typically used by approved drivers who have qualified after a safety screening or have otherwise been granted access. A $12,000 software upgrade makes vehicles capable of receiving it — though the price is soon to go up. Tesla doesn’t claim the software is autonomous, and the system requires the driver to be alert at all times — issuing escalating warnings if a driver is not paying attention before turning off the features.
Tesla has pointed to the ability of technologies like its Autopilot driver-assistance system to “reduce the frequency and severity of traffic crashes and save thousands of lives each year.” Musk has said Autopilot is “unequivocally safer” than normal driving.
Musk and Tesla did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Regulatory and police agencies have urged users not to involve children in tests or attempt to simulate safety demonstrations, which are conducted under strict, tightly controlled sets of conditions.
That did not stop one Tesla superfan from conducting a test involving a child in an attempt to prove that “Full Self-Driving” Beta is safe, after the parent agreed to sit behind the wheel for the demo. The vehicle in the video slowly approached both a child-sized mannequin and a real child, and both times slowed down and stopped. YouTube took down the video after it was flagged to the site by CNBC, the outlet reported.
The cease-and-desist letter from Tesla leaned on an investigation by the news site Electrek, which alleged Tesla’s “Full Self-Driving” Beta “never engaged” during the Dawn Project’s test using mannequins. Aspects of the report have since come into question, after the Dawn Project pointed to raw data and other information indicating Full Self-Driving was activated during the demonstrations.
“The purported tests misuse and misrepresent the capabilities of Tesla’s technology, and disregard widely recognized testing performed by independent agencies as well as the experiences shared by our customers,” Tesla deputy general counsel Dinna Eskin wrote in the letter dated Aug. 11, the day after the Electrek article.
The letter demands the campaign immediately remove the videos and accused the group of “unsafe and improper use” of FSD Beta. “Your actions actually put consumers at risk,” Tesla alleged.
Fred Lambert, editor-in-chief of Electrek, pointed to what he alleged were “serious inconsistencies” with the footage that emerged to support the commercial’s claims, and said he has repeatedly asked O’Dowd for clarification.
Cease-and-desist orders sometimes precede a lawsuit, but can also be used to convince an opponent to back down under the threat of legal action.
O’Dowd dismissed the order.
“This letter is so pathetic in terms of whining: Mr. Free Speech Absolutist, just a crybaby hiding behind his lawyers,” O’Dowd said in an interview. (Musk has said he supports free speech and welcomes criticism.)
O’Dowd said he did not intend to take down the video commercial, and instead pledged more money into the effort.