The ad led to an increase in 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 drew blowback from Tesla supporters who said the test may have been rigged. Some of them tried to recreate demonstrations — sometimes involving real children — in an effort to show that Tesla’s software actually works.
The back-and-forth is the latest escalation in an ongoing feud between Tesla’s vocal fan community and critics of its driver assistance software.
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The man behind Project Dawn, tech founder and billionaire Dan O’Dowd, has become the unlikely and controversial leader of the latter group. Operates Green Hills Software, which makes operating systems for airplanes and cars, potentially making it a competitor in the automotive software market. He also ran for the U.S. Senate this year, airing his videos on TV and online as campaign ads. (One such ad features reports from The Washington Post, which did not participate.)
O’Dowd says his motivation for going after Tesla is his belief that the technology, like many other pieces of software people rely on in the modern world, is not secure enough and needs to be redesigned — and in this case, banned .
“We’ve been busy plugging and converting computers to manage the things that millions of people’s lives depend on: self-driving cars being one of them,” O’Dowd said.
The “Full Self-Driving” beta is still in development and is typically used by approved drivers who have qualified after a security clearance or otherwise been granted access. A $12,000 software upgrade allows vehicles to receive it — though there is a price 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 the driver isn’t paying attention before turning the feature off.
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Tesla pointed to the ability of technologies such as its Autopilot driver assistance system to “reduce the frequency and severity of traffic accidents and save thousands of lives each year.” Musk he said Autopilot is “definitely safer” than normal driving.
Musk and Tesla did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Regulatory and law enforcement agencies have urged users not to involve children in tests or attempt to simulate safety demonstrations that take place under strict, tightly controlled conditions.
That didn’t stop one Tesla superfan from conducting a test involving a child in an attempt to prove the “Full Self-Driving” beta was safe after the parent agreed to get behind the wheel for a demonstration. The vehicle in the video slowly approached both the child-sized mannequin and the real child, slowing down and stopping in both cases. YouTube pulled the video after CNBC flagged it on the site, the site said.
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Tesla’s cease-and-desist letter was based on an investigation by news website Electrek, which claimed the Tesla Beta “Fully Self-Driving” “never engaged” during a Project Dawn test using dummies. Aspects of the report have since come into question after the Dawn Project pointed to raw data and other information indicating that Full Self-Governance was activated during the demonstrations.
“The alleged tests abuse and misrepresent the capabilities of Tesla’s technology and ignore widely accepted tests conducted by independent agencies, as well as the experiences shared by our customers,” Tesla Deputy General Counsel Dinna Eskin wrote in an Aug. 11 letter. after the Electrek article.
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The letter demands that the campaign immediately remove the videos and accuses the group of “dangerous and improper use” of FSD Beta. “Your actions actually put consumers at risk,” Tesla claimed.
Stop orders sometimes precede litigation, but they can also be used to persuade an opponent to back down under the threat of legal action.
O’Dowd refused the order.
“This letter is so pathetic when it comes to whining: Mr. Free Speech Absolutist, just a mouthpiece hiding behind his lawyers,” O’Dowd said in an interview. (Musk has said he supports free speech and welcomes criticism.)
O’Dowd said he had no intention of pulling the video ad and instead pledged more money for the effort.
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