October 25 – Tesla Corporation (TSLA.O) A criminal investigation is underway in the United States over allegations that the company’s electric cars can drive themselves, three people familiar with the matter said.
The US Department of Justice launched the previously undisclosed investigation last year after more than a dozen accidents, some fatal, including Tesla’s driver assistance system, Autopilot, which was activated during accidents, People said.
As early as 2016, Tesla’s marketing materials touted the autopilot capabilities. On a conference call that year, Elon Musk, CEO of Silicon Valley Automobiles, described the car as “probably better” than a human driver.
Last week, Musk said in another call that Tesla would soon launch an upgraded version of its “fully self-driving” program that would allow customers to travel “to your work, your friend’s house, to the grocery store without ever 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 drives itself.”
However, the company has also explicitly warned drivers that they should keep their hands on the steering wheel and maintain control of their vehicles while on autopilot.
Tesla’s technology is designed to assist with steering, braking, and changing gear and lane, but its features “do not make the car autonomous,” the company says on its website.
The sources said that such warnings may complicate any case that the Ministry of Justice may wish to raise.
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 in ways that go against Tesla’s instructions.
Federal and California safety regulators are already examining whether claims about autopilot capabilities and system design are giving customers a false sense of security, leading them to treat Teslas as truly driverless cars and become complacent behind the wheel with potentially fatal 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 unsupported claims about its driver assistance technology capabilities, sources said.
They said officials conducting their investigation may eventually file criminal charges, seek civil penalties, or close the investigation without taking any action.
One source said the Justice Department’s Autopilot investigation is far from recommending any action in part because it competes with two other Justice Department investigations involving Tesla. 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 may also face challenges in building its case, due to Tesla’s warnings about an over-reliance on autopilot.
For example, after telling an investor call last week that Teslas will soon travel without customers touching the controls, Musk added that vehicles still need someone in the driver’s seat. “It’s as if we’re not saying this is totally ready because there’s no one behind the wheel,” he said.
Tesla’s website also warns that before enabling autopilot, the driver first needs to agree to “keep your hands on the steering wheel at all times” and to “always maintain control and responsibility for your vehicle.”
Barbara McQuaid, a former US attorney in Detroit who has prosecuted auto companies and employees in fraud cases and was not involved in the current investigation, said investigators will likely need to reveal evidence such as emails or other internal communications showing that Tesla and Musk made misleading statements about the capabilities of the company. Autopilot on purpose.
The criminal autopilot investigation adds to investigations and other legal issues related to Musk, who was embroiled in a court battle earlier this year after abandoning a $44 billion acquisition of social media giant Twitter Inc, only to reverse course and announce excitement for the looming acquisition. In sight.
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 Tesla crashed into a parked emergency vehicle.
NHTSA officials in June ramped up their investigation, covering 830,000 Tesla vehicles with autopilot, and identified 16 accidents involving the company’s electric vehicles, stationary first responder cars and road maintenance vehicles. This step is one that regulators must take before requesting a withdrawal. The agency had no immediate comment.
In July of this year, the California Department of Automobiles accused Tesla of falsely advertising its ability to autopilot and fully autonomous driving as offering autonomous vehicle control. Tesla has filed papers with the agency for a hearing on the allegations and indicated that it intends to defend against them. DMV said in a statement that it is currently in the discovery phase of the action and declined to comment.
Additional reporting by Hyunjoo Jin and David Shepherdson. Editing by Deepa Babington
Our criteria: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.
“Pop culture junkie. Tv aficionado. Alcohol ninja. Total beer geek. Professional twitter maven.”