Oct 25 – Tesla Inc. (TSLA.O) is under criminal investigation in the United States for claims that the company’s electric vehicles can drive themselves, three people familiar with the matter said.
The US Department of Justice launched a previously undisclosed investigation last year following more than a dozen crashes, some of them fatal, involving Tesla’s Autopilot driver assistance system, which activated during the crashes. people said.
As far back as 2016, Tesla’s marketing materials have touted Autopilot’s capabilities. In a conference call that year, Elon Musk, CEO of the Silicon Valley automaker, described it as “probably better” than a human driver.
Last week, Musk said in another call Tesla would launch soon an enhanced version of “Full Self-Driving” software that allows customers to ride “to work, to a friend’s house, to the grocery store without you touching the wheel.”
A video currently on the company’s website reads: “The person in the driver’s seat is only there for legal reasons. He is not doing anything. The car drives itself.
However, the company also explicitly warned drivers to keep their hands on the wheel and maintain control of their vehicles while using Autopilot.
Tesla’s 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 wants to bring, the sources said.
Tesla, which dissolved 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 Justice Department spokesman declined to comment.
Musk said in an interview with Automotive News in 2020 that Autopilot problems stem from customers using the system contrary to Tesla’s instructions.
California and federal safety regulators are already examining whether claims about Autopilot capabilities and the system’s design lull customers into a false sense of security, misleading them to treat Teslas as true self-driving cars and become complacent. behind the wheel with life-threatening consequences.
The Justice Department investigation potentially represents a more serious level of scrutiny because of the possibility of criminal charges against the company or individual executives, the people familiar with the investigation said.
As part of the latest investigation, Justice Department prosecutors in Washington and San Francisco are examining whether Tesla misled consumers, investors and regulators by making unsubstantiated claims about the capabilities of its driver-assist technology, the sources said.
Officials conducting their investigation could ultimately file 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 competes with two other Justice Department investigations involving Tesla, one of the sources said. Investigators still have a lot of work to do and a decision on charges is not imminent, the source said.
The Justice Department may also face challenges in building its case, the sources said, due to Tesla’s warnings about over-reliance on Autopilot.
For example, after telling investors who called last week that the Teslas would soon travel without customers touching the controls, Musk added that the vehicles still needed someone in the driver’s seat. “Like we’re not saying that’s ready to have no one behind the wheel,” he said.
Tesla’s website also warns that before Autopilot can be enabled, the driver must first agree to “keep hands on the wheel at all times” and always “remain in control of and responsible for their vehicle.”
Barbara McQuade, 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 uncover evidence such as emails or other internal communications that show Tesla and Musk did misleading statements. .about Autopilot capabilities by the way.
The Autopilot criminal investigation adds to the other investigations and legal issues. involving muskwho became locked in a court battle earlier this year after abandoning a $44 billion takeover of social media giant Twitter Inc, only to reverse course and proclaim enthusiasm for the upcoming acquisition.
In August 2021, the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration opened an investigation into a series of accidents, one of them fatal, in which Autopilot-equipped Teslas collided with parked emergency vehicles.
NHTSA officials in June they intensified their survey, which covers 830,000 Teslas on autopilot, identifying 16 crashes involving the company’s electric cars and stationary road maintenance and first aid vehicles. The move is a step 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 false advertising its Autopilot and Full Self-Driving capabilities provide autonomous control of the vehicle. Tesla filed documents with the agency seeking a hearing on the allegations and indicated that he intends to defend himself against them. The DMV said in a statement that he is currently in the discovery stage of the proceeding and declined to comment further.
Additional reporting by Hyunjoo Jin and David Shepardson; Edited by Deepa Babington
Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.