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Meet the Reclusive Software Billionaire Attacking Elon Musk

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“Trillion-Dollar Ponzi Scheme.”

“Deep Flaws.”

“Unsafe.”

The tv ads for Dan O’Dowd, a software billionaire running as a Democrat for Senate in California, aren’t your typical campaign spots. To a rare degree, they’re all aimed toward one topic: Tesla’s automated driving software. Not at his putative opponent, Senator Alex Padilla, the incumbent Democrat.

O’Dowd’s campaign slogan is “Making Computers Protected for Humanity.” Tesla’s computers, he claims, aren’t.

“The issue of the last five or 10 years has been that we’ve been taking every thing that our lives rely on and putting computers in control of it,” O’Dowd said in an interview. “So now our power grid, our cars, or our dams, or bridges, hospitals — every thing has been put in computers which have been put in control of every thing.”

He added: “And a whole lot of the software that was used to try this could be very poor quality.”

O’Dowd’s initial focus, he said, is on Tesla’s full self-driving software, which he says must have never been allowed on the road.

“The software that drives cars which might be going to have tens of millions of individuals depending on it needs to be our greatest software, essentially the most rigorously designed and tested software,” he said. “As a substitute we’re using literally the worst software.”

O’Dowd also ran a paid ad in a print edition of The Recent York Times, headlined “Don’t Be a Tesla Crash-Test Dummy.” The ad promotes The Dawn Project, O’Dowd’s website highlighting his expertise as a software engineer for projects just like the Boeing 787 and the Lockheed Martin F-35 fighter jet.

A few of O’Dowd’s critics have questioned the motives behind his anti-Tesla campaign. Automotive firms use his company’s software in various components and systems, including automated driving systems.

For Democrats, Elon Musk, Tesla’s founder, makes for an inviting political quarry.

In recent weeks, Musk has shared his unsolicited thoughts on politics, free speech, “cancel culture,” his “hardcore litigation department” and the rest that seems to cross his mind on Twitter. He has bashed the Democratic Party because the party of “division and hate” and said that he’ll now “vote Republican.”

Musk’s engagement in public debate has cost him dearly. The worth of Tesla shares has dropped by nearly $400 because the news first emerged in early April that he had taken a stake in Twitter, which he has since agreed to buy.

Tesla didn’t reply to a request for comment for this text. On its website, the corporate says that its full self-driving system requires “energetic driver supervision” and doesn’t “make the vehicle autonomous.”

But Musk has at times implied otherwise. “I’m highly confident the automobile will drive itself for the reliability in excess of a human this 12 months,” he said in January 2021. “This can be a very big deal.”

After I asked O’Dowd why he had taken the unorthodox route of running for office, quite than starting a nonprofit and easily raising the problem in the general public arena, he said he had taken that approach already.

“I’ve tried nearly every thing,” he said. “I’ve tried going to the federal government, to the regulators, to the politicians, to the businesses themselves.”

“I’ve been giving speeches for seven years, feeling quite lonely,” he said. But now that his crusade against Tesla has gotten extensive coverage, he added, “I’ve not been feeling so lonely.”

If the state of California or another legal authority decrees that Tesla’s self-driving software shouldn’t be ready for public use, he’ll “shut up,” he said.

But for now, O’Dowd is willing to spend “whatever it takes” to realize his goal of taking it off the market, he said. “A complete raft of more commercials” are within the works.

“I don’t have a budget,” he said matter-of-factly.

O’Dowd is fully self-funding his campaign. He has already spent nearly $3.5 million on ads, way over some other candidate within the race. His campaign manager is Jon Blair, a veteran Democratic strategist who previously helped elect Gina Raimondo, the previous governor of Rhode Island.

He’s also hired Mark Putnam, a Democratic ad-maker whose firm has grow to be well-known for making gauzy biographical videos for candidates, including spots for Amy McGrath and M.J. Hegar that helped launch them into the national highlight.

Putnam’s ads for O’Dowd feature lots of the traits which have made him some of the sought-after creative minds in his field: emotional urgency, first-person testimonials and compelling footage. For a nontraditional campaign subject, they’re fairly arresting.

Putnam’s most up-to-date ad, the one which accuses Musk of running a “Ponzi scheme,” is almost two minutes long — a rare indulgence for many campaigns.

But O’Dowd’s operation shouldn’t be like most campaigns. He doesn’t employ an official pollster, though he has commissioned polls. He shouldn’t be holding campaign rallies or walking rope lines, though he has held meetings with small groups of voters, interest groups and elected officials to air his concerns.

O’Dowd advantages from federal regulations that require broadcasters to supply steep discounts to qualified candidates for public office. Had he arrange an excellent PAC or another vehicle to underwrite his ads, broadcasters would have had more leeway to refuse them, or to charge hefty rates.

But there’s nothing untoward about what he’s doing, experts on campaign law said.

“It’s not legally novel to run a single-issue campaign, even when that issue is hyper-focused,” said Adav Noti, vice chairman and legal director of the Campaign Legal Center. “The law is pretty agnostic as to what candidates decide to concentrate on.”

The first is coming up on June 7. Due to California’s unique election laws, under which the highest two finishers advance to the overall election, O’Dowd might be in a head-to-head matchup with Padilla in the autumn.

O’Dowd doesn’t say so explicitly, but he shouldn’t be attempting to win, exactly.

“I’m going to limit myself to those issues very rigorously,” he said. “And I’m going to inform people, it is best to vote for me for those who think that is the largest problem.”

O’Dowd insisted that his company, Green Hills Software, shouldn’t be a competitor to Tesla.

“We don’t make self-driving cars,” he said, adding that some automobile firms were using its software in certain low-level components. “That’s not our business.”

Green Hills promotes its expertise in making specialized software utilized in automated driving systems. Its website says that its code is utilized in “lots of of tens of millions of vehicles.”

The Recent York Times has reported extensively on the shortcomings of Musk’s push for fully autonomous cars, including in a recent documentary film.

In February, Tesla recalled 54,000 of its cars to disable a feature of its software that allowed the vehicles to make rolling stops in some cases. There are entire web sites dedicated to documenting deaths involving Teslas, including those where driver-assistance features were proved to have been involved.

Once we spoke in late April, O’Dowd said he had not spoken to Musk about his concerns — though not for lack of trying. “I’ve made three or 4 endeavors to achieve this through mutual friends,” O’Dowd said. “Trust me, he knows who I’m. He knows what I do. And he’s not interested.”

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On Politics repeatedly features work by Times photographers. Here’s what Doug Mills told us about capturing the image above:

The photo was taken during a news conference in Tokyo with Prime Minister Fumio Kishida of Japan, just after President Biden said he was willing to defend Taiwan with military force, if needed. At this moment, the president was pondering one other query, but reporters within the room were buzzing — everyone knew he had just made the news of the day.

And here’s what Erin Schaff needed to say about this stunning church in Ecuador:

I used to be the one pool photographer for the primary lady’s six-day visit to Latin America. She went to Ecuador, Panama and Costa Rica, on a mission to reaffirm the U.S. commitment to the region upfront of the Summit of the Americas, which goes to be held in June in Los Angeles.

There’s slightly bit more freedom for the primary lady in a way that there isn’t for the president. From a photography perspective, it was fun simply to get to see her interacting with children and meeting with various other first ladies and seeing a little bit of her personality.

This Jesuit church we visited within the primary square in Quito, Ecuador, is a famous example of colonial-era Baroque architecture. Locals just call it “La Compañía.” Once we entered, there was a piano player playing “Ave Maria.” It was very dark inside, so I had to make use of a slower shutter speed to capture the golden glow coming off the partitions. It was a extremely beautiful moment.

Is there anything you’re thinking that we’re missing? Anything you should see more of? We’d love to listen to from you. Email us at onpolitics@nytimes.com.

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