Tesla faces US criminal investigation into self-driving car claims, sources say

Tesla is under criminal investigation in the United States over claims that the company’s electric vehicles can drive themselves, according to three people familiar with the case.

The US Department of Justice launched the previously undisclosed probe last year after more than a dozen crashes, some of which were fatal, involving Tesla’s Autopilot driver assistance system, which was activated during the crashes, people said.

As early as 2016, Tesla’s marketing material touted the capabilities of Autopilot. During a conference call that year, Elon Musk, the chief executive of the Silicon Valley automaker, described it as “probably better” than a human driver.

Tesla Motors Inc.  test self-driving technologyAn employee drives a Tesla Model S electric vehicle equipped with autopilot hardware and software in Amsterdam in 2015.Jasper Juinen/Bloomberg via Getty Images file

Last week, on another call, Musk said Tesla would soon release an enhanced version of “Full Self-Driving” software that would allow customers to “travel to work, your friend’s house, to the grocery store without touching the wheel.” .

A video currently up on the company’s website says: “The person in the driver’s seat is only there for legal reasons. He does nothing. The car drives 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.

Tesla technology is designed to assist with steering, braking, speed and lane changes, but its functions “do not make the vehicle autonomous,” the company says on its website.

Such warnings could complicate any case the Justice Department might want to file, the sources said.

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 requests for comment. A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment.

Musk said in a 2020 interview with Automotive News that Autopilot issues stem from customers using the system in ways that violate Tesla’s instructions.

Federal and California safety regulators are already investigating whether claims about Autopilot’s capabilities and the system’s design give customers a false sense of security, leading them to view Teslas as driverless cars and become complacent behind the wheel with potentially deadly consequences.

The Justice Department’s investigation may represent 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 investigating whether Tesla misled consumers, investors and regulators by making unsupported claims about the capabilities of its driver assistance technology, the sources said.

Officials conducting their investigations could eventually bring criminal charges, demand civil penalties 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 competes 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 the charges is imminent, this source said.

The Justice Department may also face challenges building its case, the sources said, due to Tesla’s warnings about relying too much on Autopilot.

For example, after telling the investor last week that Teslas would soon be traveling without customers touching the controls, Musk added that the vehicles still needed someone in the driver’s seat. “As if we’re not saying that’s all set to have no one behind the wheel,” he said.

The Tesla website also warns that before engaging Autopilot, the driver first agrees to “keep your hands on the wheel at all times” and always “remain in control and accountability for your vehicle.”

Barbara McQuade, a former US attorney in Detroit who sued auto companies and employees in fraud cases and is not involved in the current investigation, said investigators would likely need to find evidence, such as emails or other internal communications showing that Tesla and Musk are making misleading statements. have traveled on purpose about the possibilities of Autopilot.

Multiple probes

The criminal Autopilot investigation adds to the other investigations and legal issues involving Musk, who became embroiled in a legal battle earlier this year after abandoning an acquisition of Twitter Inc. for $44 billion, only to reverse course and proclaim excitement for the impending takeover.

In August 2021, the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration opened an investigation into a series of crashes, one of which was fatal, in which Teslas equipped with Autopilot slammed into parked emergency services.

NHTSA officials stepped up their investigation in June, which covers 830,000 Teslas with Autopilot, identifying 16 crashes involving the company’s electric cars and stationary emergency and road maintenance vehicles. The move is a step regulators should take before filing a recall. The agency did not immediately comment.

In July of this year, the California Department of Motor Vehicles accused Tesla of falsely promoting its Autopilot and Full Self-Driving capability as autonomous vehicle management. Tesla filed paperwork with the agency to hold a hearing on the allegations and indicated that it plans to defend itself against them. The DMV said in a statement it is currently in the discovery phase of the proceedings and declined to comment further.

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