Tesla is under criminal investigation in the United States over claims that the company’s electric vehicles can drive themselves, three people familiar with the matter said.
The U.S. Department of Justice launched the previously undisclosed investigation last year after more than a dozen crashes, some of them fatal, involving Tesla’s Autopilot driver assistance system being activated during the crashes, the people said.
As far back as 2016, Tesla’s marketing materials have promoted Autopilot’s capabilities. In a conference call that year, Elon Musk, the Silicon Valley automaker’s chief executive, described it as “probably better” than a human driver.
Last week, Musk said in another call, Tesla will soon release an improved version of its “Full Self-Driving” software that allows customers to drive “to your work, your friend’s house, the grocery store without touching the wheel “.
A video currently on the company’s website says: “The person in the driver’s seat is only there for legal reasons. He’s not doing anything. The car is driving itself.”
However, the company has also explicitly warned drivers to keep their hands on the wheel and maintain control of their vehicles while using Autopilot.
The Tesla technology is designed to help with steering, braking, speeding and lane changes, but its features “do not make the vehicle autonomous,” the company says on its website.
Such warnings could complicate any case the Justice Department might want to bring, the sources said.
Tesla, which disbanded its media relations department in 2020, did not respond to written questions from Reuters on Wednesday. Musk also did not respond to written questions seeking comment. A spokesman for the Justice Department declined to comment.
Musk said in an interview with Automotive News in 2020 that problems with Autopilot stem from customers using the system in ways that are contrary to Tesla’s guidelines.
Federal and California safety regulators are already looking into whether claims about Autopilot’s capabilities and the system’s design lull customers into a false sense of security, prompting them to treat Teslas as truly driverless cars and become complacent behind the wheel. potentially fatal consequences.
The Justice Department probe potentially represents a more serious level of scrutiny because of the possibility of criminal charges against the company or individual executives, people familiar with the investigation said.
As part of the latest investigation, Justice Department prosecutors in Washington and San Francisco are looking into whether Tesla misled consumers, investors and regulators by making unsupported claims about the capabilities of its driver assistance technology, the sources said.
Officials who conduct their own investigation may ultimately pursue criminal charges, seek civil penalties or close the investigation without taking any action, they said.
The Justice Department’s Autopilot investigation is far from recommending any action, in part because it is competing with two other DOJ investigations involving Tesla, one of the sources said. Investigators still have a lot of work to do and no decision on charges is imminent, the source said.
The Justice Department may also face challenges in building its case, the sources said, because of Tesla’s warnings about over-reliance on Autopilot.
For example, after telling an investor call last week that Teslas would soon drive without customers touching the controls, Musk added that the vehicles still needed someone in the driver’s seat. “Like we’re not saying it’s ready to have nobody at the wheel,” he said.
The Tesla website also warns that, before activating Autopilot, the driver must first agree to “keep your hands on the wheel at all times” and to “maintain control and responsibility for your vehicle at all times.”
Barbara McQuade, a former U.S. attorney in Detroit who prosecuted auto companies and employees in fraud cases and is not involved in the current investigation, said investigators will likely need to turn over evidence such as emails or communications other internal documents showing that Tesla and Musk made misleading statements. in relation to autopilot capabilities on purpose.
The Autopilot criminal investigation adds to other investigations and legal issues involving Musk, who was locked in a court battle earlier this year after abandoning a $44 billion acquisition of social media giant Twitter Inc, only to reverse course and to announce excitement about the impending purchase.
In August 2021, the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration opened an investigation into a series of crashes, one of them fatal, involving Autopilot-equipped Teslas crashing into parked emergency vehicles.
NHTSA officials in June intensified their investigation, which covers 830,000 Teslas with Autopilot, identifying 16 crashes involving the company’s electric cars and stationary first-response and road maintenance vehicles. The move is a step regulators must take before seeking a recall. The agency had no immediate comment.
In July of this year, the California Department of Motor Vehicles accused Tesla of falsely advertising its Autopilot and Full Self-Driving capabilities as offering autonomous vehicle control. Tesla filed documents with the agency requesting a hearing on the allegations and indicated it intends to defend itself against them. The DMV said in a statement that it is currently in the discovery phase of the proceeding and declined further comment.