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Tesla ‘full self-driving’ debate escalates with legal threats, banned videos

<i>Christopher Goodney/Bloomberg/Getty Images</i><br/>
Bloomberg via Getty Images
Christopher Goodney/Bloomberg/Getty Images

By Matt McFarland, CNN Business

This month, Tesla fans rushed to defend the automaker after a prominent critic released a video showing one of the company’s cars with the feature it calls “full self-driving” plowing into child-size mannequins. Some fans built or bought mannequins and child-size dummies to use in their own tests. Others asked their kids to stand in front of a Tesla to prove the cars are safe near children.

Some of the videos have drawn scrutiny from YouTube and Tesla. YouTube has taken down several test videos involving actual children, citing safety risks. (Children were not harmed or injured in the published videos.) Now, Tesla wants the video that started it all taken down, too.

The automaker sent a cease-and-desist letter claiming defamation on Aug. 11 to Dan O’Dowd, a software company CEO and outspoken critic of “full self-driving,” demanding that he remove critical videos. O’Dowd had also published an additional video showing similar results on a public street following criticism of his methodology by Tesla supporters.

Tesla deputy general counsel Dinna Eskin warned of legal action if O’Dowd did not comply with the automaker’s demands. The cease-and-desist letter was surfaced Thursday by The Washington Post.

O’Dowd responded to the cease-and-desist with a 1,736-word post in which he pushed back at the suggestion his posts were defamatory, defended his tests and returned barbs from Musk and some Tesla supporters.

“I can afford not to be intimidated by these threats,” O’Dowd said. Elizabeth Markowitz, a spokesperson for the O’Dowd-led Dawn Project, which he calls an effort to make computers safe for humanity, said O’Dowd was also responding to the letter with an extra $2 million devoted to the video’s promotion.

The ongoing clashes online between Tesla’s fans and detractors highlight both the strong reactions elicited by the car company and the ripple effects of it deploying a test version of a disruptive technology to the public. The driver-assistance feature Tesla calls “full self-driving” is designed to navigate local roads with steering, acceleration and braking, but requires an attentive human driver prepared to take control as the system “may do the wrong thing at the worst time,” Tesla warns drivers.

O’Dowd has said he believes the software controlling self-driving cars should be the best ever written. He ran unsuccessfully for US Senate in California earlier this year, with a campaign focused solely on his critique of “full self-driving.” O’Dowd is the founder and CEO of Green Hills Software.

Tesla fan backlash

Tesla fans who felt O’Dowd’s video was unfair took to YouTube to share footage from their own tests.

YouTube removed at least three videos from its service from users other than O’Dowd of adults testing “full self-driving” with children. YouTube spokeswoman Elena Hernandez cited its policies on harmful and dangerous content. “We don’t allow content showing or encouraging minors in harmful situations that may lead to injury, including dangerous stunts, dares, or pranks,” Hernandez said.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration had also taken the uncommon step last week of warning consumers not to test vehicle technology on children.

Omar Qazi, who published one test video with two children of parent Tad Park and had the video pulled days later, said on Twitter that he’d appealed the decision. Park declined to comment and Qazi did not respond to a request for comment.

Carmine Cupani, who had two videos pulled by YouTube, said his videos were “harmless” and that he felt YouTube was unfairly targeting Tesla videos. He appealed the decision too, and said YouTube may have had business motivations, though he said he did not know for sure. Cupani pointed to a video available on YouTube of children appearing to jump across buildings. YouTube did not comment on Cupani’s criticism.

Waymo, the self-driving arm of YouTube’s parent company Alphabet, may be a long-term competitor to Tesla in autonomous driving. Waymo spokesman Nick Smith said the company had no involvement in YouTube’s decision.

Jon Herrity, a Tesla fan and Chicago-area parent, told CNN Business that he’s planning to do more tests of “full self-driving” to challenge O’Dowd’s findings, but that he won’t be involving his kids.

Herrity was among the first to respond to O’Dowd with an Aug. 11 video that was the most viewed video ever on his channel, and which YouTube has not taken down. He stuffed some of his six-year-old daughter’s clothing with newspapers and used a balloon for a head. The mannequin was held together with safety pins and duct tape.

“I planned it in 10 minutes, built it in 15 minutes,” Herrity said. “I think a lot of people were laughing at that. They were like, is this guy really serious?”

Herrity followed up with a second video with a new mannequin given concerns that his first mannequin didn’t look human enough.

Herrity said he had second thoughts about a short sequence in his second video when his daughters walked in front of his Tesla while “full self-driving” wasn’t active. The test showed that the car sometimes recognized them on an in-car visualization of the road ahead.

“We really should not be testing with children,” Herrity said. “I could’ve accidentally somehow had some stroke or whatever and suddenly my foot goes on the accelerator or a heart attack or who know what could happen. There’s always that chance.”

He said he bought a inflatable dummy on eBay for future tests, and will rely on adults to assist.

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