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. Justice Department launched the previously undisclosed probe last year after more than a dozen crashes, some fatal, involving Tesla’s Autopilot driver assistance system, which was activated during the crashes, the people said.
As early as 2016, Tesla’s marketing materials have touted Autopilot’s capabilities. On 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 on another call that Tesla would soon release an upgraded version of its “Full Self-Driving” software to allow customers to travel “to your work, your friend’s house, to the grocery store without touching it 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 expressly warned drivers that they must keep their hands on the wheel and maintain control of their vehicles when using Autopilot.
Tesla’s technology is designed to assist 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 make any case brought by the Justice Department more complicated, the sources said.
Tesla, which split 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 Department of Justice declined to comment.
Musk said in an interview with Automotive News in 2020 that Autopilot problems stem from customers using the system in ways contrary to Tesla’s instructions.
Federal and California safety regulators are already scrutinizing whether claims about Autopilot’s capabilities and the system’s design lull customers into a false sense of security, encouraging them to treat Teslas as true driverless cars and get complacent behind the wheel with consequences which could be fatal.
The Justice Department investigation could represent a more serious level of scrutiny because of the possibility of criminal charges against the company or individual executives, the people familiar with the inquiry said.
As part of the latest probe, Justice Department prosecutors in Washington and San Francisco are examining whether Tesla misled consumers, investors and regulators by making unsupported claims about the capabilities of its driver assistance technology, the sources said.
Officials investigating could eventually pursue criminal charges, seek civil sanctions or close the investigation without taking any action, they said.
The Justice Department’s Autopilot probe is far from recommending any action in part because it is competing with two other DOJ investigations related to Tesla, one of the sources said. Investigators still have a lot of work to do and no decision on charges has been made, this source said.
The Justice Department may also face challenges in building its case, the sources said, because of Tesla’s warnings about overreliance on Autopilot.
For example, after saying on the investor call last week that Teslas would soon be traveling without customers touching controls, Musk said the vehicles still needed someone in the driver’s seat. “It’s like we’re not saying that’s ready enough without anyone being behind the wheel,” he said.
Tesla’s website also warns that before enabling Autopilot, the driver must first agree to “keep your hands on the steering wheel at all times” and “maintain control and responsibility for your vehicle at all times.”
Barbara McQuade, a former U.S. attorney in Detroit who has prosecuted automotive companies and employees in fraud cases and is not involved in the current probe, said investigators would likely have to disclose evidence such as emails or other internal communications that shows that Tesla and Musk made misleading statements. about Autopilot capabilities on purpose.
The Autopilot criminal investigation adds to the probes and other legal issues surrounding Musk, who was locked in a court battle earlier this year after abandoning a $44 billion takeover of social media giant Twitter Inc, only to take a course herald a reversal and excitement for the impending acquisition.
In August 2021, the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration opened an investigation into a series of crashes, one of which was fatal, involving Teslas equipped with Autopilot slamming into parked emergency vehicles.
NHTSA officials in June stepped up their search, which covers 830,000 Teslas with Autopilot, identifying 16 accidents involving the company’s electric cars and the company’s first responder 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 providing autonomous vehicle control. Tesla filed paperwork with the agency seeking a hearing on the allegations and indicated its intention to defend against them. The DMV said in a statement that it is currently in the discovery phase of the incident and declined further comment.