Tesla’s self-driving claims are under criminal investigation in the US
Prosecutors are examining whether Tesla misled consumers and investors about the capabilities of its driver assistance program.
Three people familiar with the matter said that Tesla is under a criminal investigation in the United States over allegations that the company’s electric cars can drive themselves.
The US Department of Justice launched the previously undisclosed investigation last year after more than a dozen fatal accidents, including Tesla’s automated driver assistance system, which was activated during accidents.
Since 2016, Tesla’s marketing materials have touted the autopilot’s capabilities. On a conference call that year, Elon Musk, CEO of the automaker Silicon Valley, described the car as “probably better” than a human driver.
Last week, Musk said in another call that Company would soon launch an improved version of its “fully self-driving” program that allows customers to ride “to your job, to your friend’s house, to the grocery store without ever touching the steering wheel.”
A company website video says: “The person in the driver’s seat is only there for legal reasons. He’s not doing anything. The car drives itself.”
However, the company also explicitly warned drivers to keep their hands on the steering wheel and to maintain control of their vehicles while on autopilot.
Tesla’s technology is designed to assist with steering, braking, speed and lane change, but its features “do not make the car self-driving,” the company says on its website.
The sources said such warnings might complicate any case that the Ministry of Justice wants to file.
Tesla, which dissolved its media relations division 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 Ministry of Justice declined to comment.
Musk said in an interview with Automotive News in 2020 that the autopilot problems stem from customers using the system against Tesla’s instructions.
California and federal safety regulators are already studying whether claims about autopilot capabilities and system design are lulling customers into a false sense of security, misleading them to treat Teslas as true self-driving cars and become complacent about driving behind the wheel with life-threatening consequences.
People familiar with the investigation said the Justice Department’s investigation likely presents a riskier level of scrutiny due to the potential for criminal charges to be brought against the company or individual executives.
As part of the latest investigation, Department of Justice prosecutors in Washington and San Francisco are examining whether Tesla misled consumers, investors and regulators, by making unsubstantiated claims about its driver assistance technology capabilities, the sources said.
They said officials conducting their investigations may eventually file criminal charges, seek civil penalties, or close the investigation without taking action.
One source said the Justice Department’s autopilot investigation is far from recommending any action because it competes with other Department of Justice investigations into Company. This source said investigators still have a lot of work to do, and there is no imminent decision on the charges.
The sources said the Justice Department might also face challenges in building its case due to Tesla’s warnings about an over-reliance on autopilot.
For example, after telling investors who called last week that Teslas would soon travel without customers touching the controls, Musk added that vehicles still need someone in the driver’s seat. “As if we’re not saying he’s ready to have no one behind the wheel,” he said.
The Tesla website also warns that before enabling autopilot, the driver must agree to “keep their hands on the steering wheel at all times” and “always remain in control and in charge of their vehicle.”
Barbara McCurdy, a former federal prosecutor in Detroit who has prosecuted auto companies and employees in fraud cases and is not involved in the current investigation, said investigators would likely have to reveal evidence such as emails or other internal communications showing that Company and Musk misled. Formulations. By the way, regarding the capabilities of the autopilot.
The Autopilot criminal investigation adds to investigations and other legal issues related to Musk, who was embroiled in a court battle earlier this year after walking away from the $44 billion Twitter Inc. Imminent acquisition.
In August 2021, the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration opened an investigation into a series of accidents, one fatal, in which an autopilot-equipped car collided with a parked emergency vehicle.
In June, NHTSA officials ramped up their investigation, covering 830,000 Tesla on autopilot, and identified 16 accidents involving the company’s electric vehicles, fixed-road maintenance and first responder vehicles. This step is one that regulators must take before requesting a withdrawal. The agency did not immediately comment.
In July of this year, the California Department of Motor Vehicles accused Tesla of falsely advertising its full autopilot and autonomous driving capabilities to provide autonomous vehicle control. The Company has filed documents with the agency seeking a hearing on the allegations and indicated that it intends to defend itself against them. The DMV said in a statement that it is currently in the discovery phase of the procedure and declined to comment further.
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