Credit: Daniel Dreifuss (file)

EFFLUENCE PEDDLING:  It used to be the class struggle in Santa Barbara was waged between the billionaires and millionaires. A good example would be how Beanie Baby mogul Ty Warner soaked the affluent members of the Coral Casino Club when he bought the Biltmore, which, in some obscure way, also included the Casino. Members suddenly had to share their Olympic-sized pool and gorgeous building with the hoi polloi guests at the hotel. Warner, always one to cut off his own nose if it meant spitting in everyone else’s face, has since branched out, declaring war against the 450 former Biltmore employees who were supposedly furloughed in the pandemic of 2020. Since then, Warner — in a toxic tiff with his Four Seasons partners — shuttered Santa Barbara’s flagship hotel

Given that some rooms there went for $11,000 a night, that’s a lot of bed taxes not going to the county’s coffers. I haven’t checked yet, but usually around this time of year, Warner can be counted on to file a formal protest disputing how much the county says he owes in property taxes. Warner claims the county’s appraisal is two to four times too high. The county can then be counted on to point out how Warner knowingly paid two to four times more than the property was worth when he bought it. In so doing, he established that the property was worth more than it, in fact, was. 

I’m not surprised by Warner’s behavior — why, after all, does a dog lick his balls? — but I am by the deafening silence emanating from the county supervisors’ chambers. Don’t they care about greedy billionaires oppressing Santa Barbara workers? Or the millions of dollars in bed taxes the county’s not receiving from one of the fattest cash cows in the pasture? One can only hope the supervisors begin grandstanding more forcefully in their own backyard. That is, after all, why we elect them.

The other big showdown in town pits Elon Musk — famous for being Elon Musk — against a software company owner named Dan O’Dowd, who has spent millions of his own money besmirching Musk’s neon-lit reputation in full-page New York Times ads and Super Bowl TV commercials. According to press accounts, both Musk and O’Dowd qualify as billionaires. 

O’Dowd’s company — Green Hills Software — specializes in making bug-proof and hack-proof software that guides military planes ferrying the nuclear bombs that can blow up the entire world. Technically, this makes him more serious than a heart attack. 

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Over the past few years, O’Dowd has been consumed by a seething contempt for the driver-assisted software Musk deploys for the full self-driving technology Tesla claims will enable car owners to order their Teslas to drive from coast to coast with no driver — or human being — on board. 

Tall, wiry, and silver-haired, O’Dowd exudes a professorial dignity until he opens his mouth. “I have literally never seen a worse program in my life,” O’Dowd stated. In other media accounts, he described the Tesla as “a self-driving car that drives like a drunken, suicidal 13-year-old…” Musk, well-known for his unique interpretation of restrained professorial dignity, responded by calling O’Dowd’s software company “crap.”

Last year, O’Dowd spent money running for the U.S. Senate solely to better vent on Musk’s self-driving platform. Then he ran Super Bowl ads showing Teslas swerving into oncoming traffic, running through stop signs, and plowing into crash-test dummies trying to cross the street. Musk filed a cease-and-desist order against O’Dowd, demanding a retraction. O’Dowd doubled down, mocking Musk as “Mr. Free Speech Absolutist” but really “just another crybaby hiding behind his lawyers’ skirts.” After Musk bought Twitter late last year for $44 billion, O’Dowd tried to buy an ad on Musk’s new toy. Guess what? It turns out his money was no good at Twitter. 

Among the techno-geek cognoscenti, there’s been a tendency to dismiss the Musk–O’Dowd conflagration as another entertaining, but tiresome, showdown between rich white guys with too much money and testosterone. O’Dowd, many skeptics clucked, manufactured a software system for an enhanced driver program competing against Tesla. He could hardly be regarded as a disinterested, neutral bystander. In other words, it was your classic “pox on all your houses” formulation. 

Until, that is, late last week. That’s when the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration issued yet another recall, this time for 362,000 Teslas because its self-driving software was vulnerable to glitches that might result in cars suddenly accelerating or going straight when in a turn-only lane. Musk termed the recall “anachronistic” and “false,” noting that none of the 362,000 cars in question will have to be taken into the shop. To the extent that Teslas are giant computers on wheels, the fix only involves a simple software upgrade.

And now the Department of Justice is investigating potentially criminal charges against Musk for exaggerating safety claims in 2016 about Tesla’s automatic driving program and withholding the results of test-driven cars failing the test. It’s worth noting that Tesla has had 21 recalls — involving 4.1 million cars — since January 2022. According to the feds, Teslas were involved in 70 percent of the 392 crashes involving advanced drive-assist cars since 2019 over an 11-month period. Of the six deaths involved, five were in Teslas.

In the meantime, I’m ordering popcorn with extra butter in it. This war’s just warming up. One thing I can say for 1,000 percent certainty: No matter how fancy, there’s no such thing as a self-driving bicycle. 


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