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

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

The U.S. Justice Department began last year after more than a dozen crashes, some of which involved Tesla’s driver-assistance system Autopilot, were not fatal, the people said.

In early 2016, Tesla’s marketing materials touted Autopilot’s 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 on another call that Tesla will release an upgraded version of its “Full Self-Driving” software, where customers don’t even touch the wheel.

A current video on the company’s website says, “There’s a person in the driver’s seat for a legal reason. He’s not doing anything. The car is driving itself.”

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

Tesla technology is steering, brake Although designed to assist with speed and lane changes, its features “do not automatically steer the vehicle,” according to the company’s website.

Those warnings could complicate any case the Justice Department wants to bring, sources said.

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Tesla, which disbanded its media relations department in 2020, did not respond to written questions from Reuters on Wednesday. Musk 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 problems stemmed from users using the system in ways contrary to Tesla’s instructions.

Federal and California safety regulators are investigating whether Autopilot’s capabilities and the system’s design lull users into a false sense of security. It’s being scrutinized whether Teslas will be able to treat themselves as truly self-driving cars and become confident behind the wheel.

The Justice Department probe could represent a heightened level of scrutiny because it could lead to criminal charges against the company or executives, people familiar with the investigators said.

As part of the final investigation, Justice Department officials in Washington and San Francisco accused Tesla of making unsupported claims about the capabilities of its driver-assistance technology. Whether to mislead investors and regulators Sources said that they are investigating.

Their investigators would eventually file criminal charges. They said the investigation could be closed without seeking or taking civil sanctions.

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One of the sources said the Justice Department’s Autopilot investigation is far from recommending any action because it is competing with two other DOJ investigations involving Tesla. Investigators still have a lot of work to do and have yet to make a decision on whether to file charges, the source said.

Sources say the Justice Department may face challenges in building its case because of Tesla’s warnings that it relies too much on Autopilot.

for example, Teslas will soon be traveling without customer controls, Musk said after an investor call that the vehicles still need someone in the driver’s seat. “Like we said, we’re ready to have nobody behind the wheel,” he said.

Tesla’s website also warns that before turning on 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 fraud cases against auto companies and employees, said investigators may need to uncover evidence such as emails or other internal communications that reveal false statements made by Tesla and Musk. About Autopilot’s capabilities on purpose.

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Multiple Probes

The criminal Autopilot investigation adds to other investigations and legal matters involving Musk, who was locked in a court battle earlier this year after abandoning his $44 billion takeover of social media giant Twitter Inc.

In August 2021, The US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has opened an investigation into a series of crashes involving Teslas equipped with Autopilot into parked emergency vehicles.

NHTSA officials stepped up their investigation into 830,000 Teslas with Autopilot in June, identifying 16 crashes involving the company’s electric cars and first response systems and road maintenance vehicles. The move is a step regulators must take before a recall can be requested. 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. Tesla has filed documents with the agency to hear the allegations and has indicated it intends to defend itself against them. The DMV said it is currently in the investigation phase and declined to comment further.


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