Dan O’Dowd interviewed by Alex Guberman of E for Electric about his campaign for to make computers safe for humanity.
EfE: So, let’s talk about your ad, which I think a lot of people have seen and my viewers are definitely aware of, which concentrates on Tesla. What is your beef with Tesla’s Full Self-Driving software?
DoD: Everyone says I exaggerate, but I don’t. It is the worst piece of commercial software I have ever seen. In city driving it malfunctions approximately every 8 minutes. There was a new video recently which showed 15 malfunctions in about 20 minutes. I am not aware of any other product in any other field that when a company ships a product, it malfunctions every 8 minutes. Your hair dryer doesn’t do that, your refrigerator doesn’t do that. Nothing that you use does that. It really is amazing that they would release a piece of software that fails so often. I love Teslas; I have driven nothing but them for 11 years. But you take a perfectly good car and put software in there that tries to kill people quite frequently. That is to me a mind-blowingly bad idea.
EfE: Now the Tesla supporters and community will say, listen it is not perfect but how many people have died while using Full Self-Driving, and I believe besides people who were doing something extremely stupid, I think it is pretty much none. Is this a valid argument?
DoD: Well, we have no idea. Tesla has not reported anything about Full Self-Driving. They have reported about Autopilot which is a separate system and one which I am not criticizing. There is no published data on how many miles Tesla Full Self-Driving has driven, how many times humans have had to take over to prevent an accident, or how many accidents, or how many people have died. We don’t know their answer because they haven’t given one. We know data is being collected and sent back to Tesla but they don’t publish it. That’s the first problem. The second one is okay. Say somebody walks in the room and puts a gun to your head, pulls the trigger and it goes click. Do you say ‘no harm no foul’, go ahead and do it again? No, you call the cops and have them arrested.
EfE: So, let’s talk about why you are doing this. Obviously there a quite a few people saying you are doing this becuase you own a competing software company. What do you say to that?
DoD: Well, my analogy is that, let’s say that Firestone sells to Ford, and maybe Bridgestone sells to Tesla, is Firestone a competitor to Tesla? Firestone and Goodrich are competitors. Ford and Tesla are competitors. But I make products that are not cars and that are not self-driving.
I make software that helps people write their own software. I sell it to most of the car companies and people who build airplanes and lots of other things like printers and internet routers, for example.
EfE: So just to be clear your company does not write or sell any software that is self-driving.
EfE: Do you think a problem is also in the name? For self-driving and Autopilot. It has been banned in the German courts; do you think it is the same problem here? Do you think that when people hear that that’s what the car has as a feature, which they paid a lot of money for, do you think it’s a problem?
DoD: I definitely think it’s a problem. And I still see people saying ‘oh I am going to get it tomorrow and I am so excited because it is self-driving.’ It isn’t at all self-driving at the moment at least, and yet they gave it that name. It is wrong to call it something it is not.
EfE: So, let’s say you get your way. What would you like to happen as far as Tesla Full Self-Driving, software regulation, and others which I think are just as bad if not even worse, like GM Super Cruise. What would you like to happen?
DoD: Well, I think that a very simple and reasonable one would be to set a standard that you can’t run more than a small number of vehicles on the road until you reach 5,000 miles between disengagements. Several companies have achieved that. So I’d suggest some number: maybe it’s 5,000, maybe it’s 10,000. I’m not going to get into a big argument. If you give me 5, I’d say ok I accept that. Tesla’s not even close. They’ve got to get a thousand times better before they’re ready, before they’re at that level. And there’s risk, of course, if you let people on the road there’s going to be some accidents, no question. There have been accidents. Google has reported accidents for several years, but that’s a very simple rule. You have to demonstrate with a safety driver.
EfE: So, whose job is it to create this standard and enforce it?
DoD: Well, for it to be a government standard, it would have to be the NHTSA (National Highway Transportation Safety Agency) or the DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles) in California. They would have to pass it. But the reason I’m running my campaign is to get people to understand that they have been terribly misled about the truth of things. That there’s a very easy solution that will make this safe and get us back on track to doing it right, and they won’t be allowed to deploy it widely until they meet the 50,000 or 100,000 miles. They’d be able to test it up to some point, so that gets us where we want to go.
EfE: Now, originally when you announced these plans, you posted on Twitter with the video that we’ve all seen. Now that Elon Musk is just about to take over, are you concerned that next time you want to post something like this or this particular tweet, it might be taken down because he believes that this is misinformation, misleading, and mis- a lot of things. Is that a concern?
DoD: Well, he claims to be a ‘free speech absolutist’. He says he wouldn’t want to censor anyone unless the law required it. If he’s not just lying, then I guess he wouldn’t take me off. If he does do that, I’m gonna make a pretty big noise somewhere else that that is the ultimate censorship. He uses being the richest man in the world to buy the town square and shut me up. That’s not a good look.
Dan’s interview was published by E for Electric on May 12, 2022. The full interview can be found on the E for Electric YouTube channel here.