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One Super Bowl ad accused Tesla of putting children at risk

A little-known consumer advocacy group chose an unusual — and expensive — way to draw attention to what it sees as the threat to life and limb posed by Tesla vehicles' "Full Self-Driving" system: It bought a Super Bowl ad.

During Sunday's broadcast of Super Bowl LVII, a spot from The Dawn Project said Tesla's self-driving technology is built on "woefully inept engineering" that poses a treat to pedestrians and drivers. The software also can cause the electric car maker's vehicles to swerve into oncoming traffic or drive on the wrong side of the road, the nonprofit group claims. 

"Tesla has known for more than six months that its Full Self-Driving software will run down a child in a crosswalk, along with hundreds of other critical safety defects reported by us and other beta testers," The Dawn Project's Founder Dan O'Dowd said in a statement Sunday. 

He also urged the federal National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to "immediately switch off" Tesla's Full Self-Driving software on public roads.

The group's commercial aired in select cities, including Atlanta, Austin, Texas, and Washington, D.C. The Dawn Project paid $598,000 for the 30-second spot, a spokesperson told CBS MoneyWatch. 

The Dawn Project Super Bowl Commercial by The Dawn Project on YouTube

NHTSA is currently probing Tesla's Full Self-Driving feature and "generally does not comment on open investigations," the agency told CBS MoneyWatch in a statement Monday. 

Tesla, which has dismantled its media relations department, could not be reached for comment.

What is The Dawn Project?

The Dawn Project is a California-based nonprofit that campaigns for the development of computer software that's safe for people. The organization conducts independent safety tests on power grids and water treatment plants as well as devices in the health care and transportation industries. 

The Dawn Project draws its funding from Dan O'Dowd, the CEO of Green Hills Software, which has developed its own vehicular self-driving software. That makes its technology a direct competitor to Tesla's proprietary self-driving system.

O'Dowd is a billionaire who built his fortune by selling customized software to Boeing, Lockheed Martin and NASA. On the Dawn Project's website, the California Institute of Technology graduate is described as the "world's leading expert in creating software that never fails." Californians may also remember O'Dowd for running an unsuccessful campaign for U.S. Senate last year. 

The ad criticizing Tesla aired in state capitals in California, Florida, Georgia, New York and Texas so it would be seen by politicians and regulators, O'Dowd said in a statement

The Dawn Project began focusing on Tesla last year after posting videos of safety tests conducted by the organization that purport to show the vehicles running over mannequins while the cars' self-driving systems were engaged. O'Dowd tweeted at the time that the test shows that Tesla vehicles "will indiscriminately mow down children." 

Tesla CEO Elon Musk replied to the tweet with a bat emoji, poop emoji and the word "crazy."

The Dawn Project also took out a full-page ad in the New York Times last year warning consumers about Tesla's Full Self-Driving software. 

NHTSA said in December that it's investigating two crashes from November in California and Ohio involving Tesla's automated driving systems. The agency has launched probes into 35 separate crashes, 19 of which were fatal, into Tesla's self-driving features since 2016, the Associated Press reported

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