Russia’s invasion of Ukraine stoked fears of a cyber attack on the United States as it works with its partners to impose sanctions and provide military aid.
But the tech billionaire running for the U.S. Senate from California was wary of cybersecurity gaps well before the war began.
Computer systems that are vulnerable to hackers are a national security issue — especially when foreign interference can shut down the power grid that allows anything requiring electricity to function — said Dan O’Dowd, the chief executive of Green Hills Software. O’Dowd is running for the seat currently held by U.S. Sen. Alex Padilla.
“It’s basically the same as nuclear weapons. They can completely destroy civilization,” O’Dowd said in an interview.
O’Dowd, 62, founded Green Hills Software, which builds computer operating systems, in 1982 alongside Carl Rosenberg. In 2021, O’Dowd created the Dawn Project to push for more secure software in critical infrastructure that could neither fail nor be hacked.
A top priority of O’Dowd’s is to get Tesla cars with Full Self-Driving technology off the road, the subject of a multi-million dollar national advertising campaign launched by his team.
A Dawn Project study found that Tesla’s full self-driving technology fails on city roads every eight minutes on average.
Tesla is far from the only one producing autonomous-vehicle technology. O’Dowd says Waymo, which shares a parent company with Google, has put far fewer cars on the road but has a much stronger safety record. Waymo recently launched fleets of driver-less taxis in San Francisco that are only otherwise available in Phoenix.
Waymo only had about 700 cars in California in 2021, according to the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles yearly autonomous vehicle report. Many were not active.
Elon Musk, Tesla’s chief executive, said in an April interview with TED that more than 100,000 customers have the company’s full self-driving technology through its beta-testing program.
“Tesla took something 1,000 times worse and gave it out to 100,000 customers. It’s unbelievably irresponsible,” O’Dowd said.
Tesla recalled 54,000 vehicles with full self-driving software in January to fix an issue that let cars roll through intersections without stopping in some instances. Crashes and other issues have led federal officials to investigate some of the company’s autopilot and self-driving features.
Musk’s company says that all cars “require active driver supervision and are not autonomous.”
O’Dowd called Tesla the “worst example” of the Silicon Valley model of production, “move fast and break things,” because the company does less testing before pushing tech to consumers — and because “breaking things” can mean people.
“That’s not right with self-driving cars. It’s not right with the power grid. It’s not right with hospitals. It’s not right with anything that has lots of lives associated with it,” he said.
A spokesperson for Tesla did not respond to a request for comment.
O’Dowd is one of a handful of Democrats challenging Padilla, also a Democrat, in 2022. Gov. Gavin Newsom appointed Padilla, previously California’s secretary of state, to finish the remainder of Vice President Kamala Harris’ unfinished term.
Padilla and O’Dowd will be on the ballot twice for the June 7 primary. They are each running to finish the last couple of months of this year and for a six-year term that starts in 2023. Padilla is heavily favored to win both.
O’Dowd said developing software in self-driving cars and similar technology should be subject to the same rules that apply to airplanes. Aircraft software is subject to Federal Aviation Administration regulations that require comprehensive testing around changes and development.
“We should just take the FAA regulations and apply them to anything that has these high-level requirements or high-level capability of causing major catastrophes,” he said. “We already know how to do it.”
But it is hard to get lawmakers to make such legislative efforts that take time and money until enough people are asking for it, he said.
So O’Dowd has made “make computers safe for humanity” his campaign focus to get people on board for securing computer software in technology that powers critical aspects of daily life. That attitude is even evident in his lack of a ballot designation for his occupation, which he said was a conscious decision.
“If I actually win the election, then I will have demonstrated that the majority of Californians believe this issue is more important than every other issue,” O’Dowd said.
“You can’t ignore somebody who can demonstrate that half the people think that issue is most important,” he added.
This story was updated on May 20, 2022, at 8:35 a.m. Pacific Time to include a social media video.
This story was originally published May 18, 2022 5:00 AM.