SAN FRANCISCO — Electric carmaker Tesla is facing multiple challenges and distractions right now. This Super Bowl Sunday it will get another one, shown to audiences across the country.
The ad shows a Tesla Model 3 that O’Dowd says has Full Self-Driving turned on running into a child-sized mannequin, crossing over the centerline into oncoming traffic, driving past “do not enter” signs, passing a school bus with its flashing stop lights on and hitting a stroller in the road.
Tesla has released the latest version of its Full Self-Driving tech — which allows the car to maneuver city and residential streets without human input — to around 400,000 people in North America, quadrupling the number of people using it during much of 2022. That has renewed questions about the tech’s safety. Government investigators are looking into whether Tesla’s driver-assistance features caused crashes. And in January, a report emerged that a former Tesla engineer had testified that a 2016 demo of in which the company claimed one of its cars was driving itself was actually staged.
Some politicians, including Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), have called for more oversight over Tesla’s tech. But O’Dowd says he’s making the investment in a new ad campaign because he wants to pressure politicians to make it a bigger priority.
Tesla doesn’t advertise its cars in the traditional way, so the Super Bowl ad could reach people who don’t already have a strong idea of what the company is, said Gene Munster, a longtime stock analyst and managing partner of Deepwater Asset Management. That said, Tesla chief executive Elon Musk is a “master of spin” and will just keep moving forward with his plans even if the ad generates bad publicity for him, Munster said.
“At the end of the day he’s just gonna keep plowing forward with this until somebody, some governing body, tells him he can’t,” he said.
Musk did not immediately respond to a request for comment. In the past, Musk has called O’Dowd crazy, and many of his supporters have accused O’Dowd of having a conflict of interest because his company, Green Hills Software, sells to Intel-owned Mobileye, which makes a computer chip that runs driver-assist software.
O’Dowd says Mobileye is just one of hundreds of customers and his motivation is driven purely by his concerns about the safety of Tesla’s tech. He owns several Teslas himself and is especially fond of the Roadster, the first model the company produced.
Last year, Tesla issued a cease-and-desist letter after O’Dowd’s group, the Dawn Project, published footage of the cars repeatedly striking child-size mannequins. A test run by a prominent Musk supporter included a real child to show the car recognizing them and stopping. O’Dowd has offered to run the test with Musk or any of his other critics in-person, to prove the car is making the mistakes without any tampering.
Full Self-Driving is a set of features that enables Tesla vehicles to accelerate, steer, make turns and maneuver a car along a route on city and residential streets without physical input. It is part of Tesla’s Autopilot driver-assistance package, but the ability to access the expanded features costs $15,000.
The company has led the way in pushing out driver-assistance features billed as steppingstones toward autonomy. Many other automakers provide lane-keeping, automatic braking and the ability for a car to keep a certain distance from the vehicle in front of it. But Tesla’s Full Self-Driving has gone further, essentially letting the car maneuver itself beyond just on highways and onto busy city streets, though the company does caution drivers to remain alert and keep their hands on the steering wheel at all times.
Tesla pioneered the mass market for electric vehicles and began touting its self-driving ambitions in 2016. But it has had a rough few months.
In late January, as Musk stood trial for a 2018 tweet in which he declared he had “funding secured” to take the company private at $420 a share, a news report from Reuters revealed a top executive’s testimony that Tesla’s original self-driving video from 2016 was staged. Musk, meanwhile, had been distracted with Twitter as Tesla investors put pressure on him to turn his attention back to the company that is the source of much of his net worth.
Why is $TSLA plunging?@ElonMusk: "Full Self-Driving...is the difference between Tesla being worth a lot of money and being worth basically zero."— Dan O'Dowd (@RealDanODowd) December 22, 2022
Many competitors have driverless robotaxis but after 8 years of development FSD will still run down a child in a school crosswalk: pic.twitter.com/fE2lQIwzIq
After peaking at more than $1.2 trillion in valuation in late 2021, Tesla’s stock price dove during 2022, as higher interest rates, Musk’s chaotic takeover of Twitter and concerns about slowing demand and increased competition led many to sell their shares.
Now there are further signs that Tesla’s Full Self-Driving Beta is falling short of its ambitions. Despite continual software updates, cars are repeating the same mistakes they have made for years: driving down light-rail tracks they should know are off limits, video footage showed, or suddenly braking when there are no obstacles in the way.
Tesla has argued that its driver-assistance suite, Autopilot, is safer than normal driving, with Musk calling Autopilot “unequivocally safer” when crash data is compared. And the company has touted improvements to the software with its steady stream of releases.
Beyond the issues with Full Self-Driving, Tesla is facing a situation where older, larger automakers have committed to electric vehicles, and Musk’s public embrace of right-wing politics and culture war issues turns off some of his potential customers. Musk himself has said that successfully building self-driving software is “the difference between Tesla being worth a lot of money and being worth basically zero.”
The technology is highly controversial, with some Tesla supporters saying it can easily take people on long drives without the need for intervention, and other users saying it makes repeated, dangerous mistakes. The latest version of the tech has generally been available to a group of tens of thousands of Tesla owners who the company says it has vetted.
Tesla Autopilot, the driver-assistance suite that encompasses Full Self-Driving Beta, is facing multiple investigations from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The investigations relate to more than a dozen crashes with parked emergency vehicles while Autopilot was activated, and Tesla vehicles’ tendency to suddenly brake for imaginary hazards, a phenomenon known as “phantom braking.”
Lucia Sanchez, a spokesperson for NHTSA, declined to comment on the open investigation.
Meanwhile, Tesla confirmed in a regulatory filing last month that the Department of Justice had requested documents related to Autopilot and Full Self-Driving, part of an ongoing probe. Public scrutiny has mounted over the performance of the software as more vehicles equipped with it have hit the roads.
In January, the Intercept published footage of an eight-vehicle crash on the San Francisco Bay Bridge that was allegedly prompted by a Tesla using driver-assistance features, which abruptly braked in traffic, injuring nine people including a 2-year-old child, according to the report. The crash came not long after Musk announced the wide release of Full Self-Driving Beta to any users in the United States and Canada who had purchased the option — which was previously restricted to approved beta testers.
O’Dowd’s Super Bowl ad is the first volley in a broader new media campaign that will target lawmakers across the country. O’Dowd says he hopes politicians will enact new laws regulating the testing of driver-assistance and autonomous driving features, and pressure regulators such as NHTSA, to speed up their investigations of the technology. Currently, carmakers can add new driver-assistance features — even those marketed as part of a self-driving package — as long as they warn drivers to stay alert at all times.
That isn’t enough for O’Dowd and other critics of the technology. “There isn’t any urgency,” he said. By hammering politicians with videos of the car making dangerous errors, O’Dowd says he hopes the government will move faster.
“It needs to come off the road,” he added.