Tesla faces U.S. criminal probe over self-driving claims, sources say

Tesla is under criminal investigation in the United States over allegations that the company’s electric cars can drive themselves, three people familiar with the matter said.

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

Since 2016, Tesla’s commercial vehicles have gained Autopilot capabilities. In 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 in a phone call that Tesla would release an improved version of its “Full Self-Driving” software that would allow customers to go “to your work, to your friend’s house, to the grocery store without you touching the wheel.”

A video currently available on the company’s website says: “The person sitting in the driver’s seat is only there for legal reasons. He is not doing anything. The car is driving itself.”

However, the company also warned drivers that they must keep their hands on the wheel and control their vehicles while using Autopilot.

Tesla’s technology is designed to help with steering, braking, speed and lane changes but its features “do not make the car autonomous,” the company said on its website.

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Such warnings could complicate any case the Justice Department might wish to bring, the sources said.

Tesla, which disbanded its media relations department in 2020, did not respond to written questions from Reuters on Wednesday. Musk also did not respond to written inquiries 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 investigating whether claims about Autopilot’s capabilities and system design lull customers into a false sense of security, leading them to treat Teslas as driverless cars and neglect behind the wheel with deadly consequences.

The Justice Department’s investigation represents the most sensitive level of scrutiny because of the possibility of criminal charges against the company or individual officials, 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 its driver assistance technology capabilities, sources said.

Officials conducting the investigation could end up pursuing criminal charges, seeking civil sanctions or closing the investigation without taking action, they said.

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The Justice Department’s Autopilot investigation is far from recommending any action in part because it competes with another DOJ investigation involving Tesla, one of the sources said. Detectives still have a lot of work to do and no decision on charges is pending, the source said.

The Justice Department may face challenges in building its case, sources said, because of Tesla’s warnings about over-reliance on Autopilot.

For example, after telling investors on a call last week that Teslas will soon go without customers touching the controls, Musk added that cars still need someone in the driver’s seat. “As we are not saying that it is ready so that there is no one 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.”

Barbara McQuade, a former U.S. attorney in Detroit who prosecuted auto companies and workers in fraud cases and is not involved in the current investigation, said investigators may need to uncover evidence such as emails or other internal communications that show Tesla and Musk made misleading statements. about Autopilot capabilities on purpose.

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Several Probes

The investigation into the hacker’s Autopilot adds to other investigations and legal issues surrounding Musk, who was locked in a lawsuit earlier this year after dumping $44 billion in social media company Twitter Inc, but has since reversed course and expressed excitement about the upcoming acquisition.

In August 2021, the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration opened an investigation into a series of accidents, one of which was fatal, involving Teslas equipped with Autopilot crashing into stationary emergency vehicles.

NHTSA officials in June intensified their investigation, which included 830,000 Teslas with Autopilot, and identified 16 accidents involving the company’s electric vehicles and stationary first-responder and road maintenance vehicles. This step is a step that administrators must take before requesting a withdrawal. The center 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 papers 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 case and declined to comment.

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