Tesla is under criminal investigation in the United States over allegations that the company’s electric vehicles can drive themselves, three people familiar with the matter have said.
The US Department of Justice (DoJ) launched an undisclosed investigation last year into more than a dozen crashes, some of them fatal, involving Tesla’s driver assistance system known as autopilot name, which was activated during the crashes, the people said.
As early as 2016, Tesla marketing materials touted Autopilot’s capabilities. On a conference call that year, Elon Musk, Tesla’s chief executive, described him as “probably better” than a human driver.
Last week, Musk said in another call that Tesla would soon release an improved version of the “completely self-driving” software, allowing customers to go “to your job, to your 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 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 help with steering, braking, speed and lane changes, but its features “do not make the vehicle self-driving,” the company says on its website.
Such warnings could complicate any case the Justice Department might wish to pursue, 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 questions seeking comment. A Justice Department spokesperson declined to comment.
Musk said in an interview with Automotive News in 2020 that the Autopilot issues stem from customers using the system contrary to Tesla’s instructions.
Federal and California safety regulators are already examining whether claims about Autopilot capabilities and system design are giving customers a false sense of security, prompting them to treat Teslas like true driverless cars and become complacent behind the wheel. with potentially fatal consequences.
The Justice Department investigation potentially represents a more serious level of scrutiny due to the possibility of criminal charges against the company or individual executives, people familiar with the investigation said.
In the latest investigation, 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 assistance technology, it said. the sources.
Officials conducting their investigation could ultimately pursue criminal charges, seek civil penalties or terminate the investigation without taking any action, they said.
The DoJ’s Autopilot investigation falls far short of recommending 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, the source said.
The Justice Department could also face difficulties building its case, the sources said, due to Tesla’s warnings about an overreliance on Autopilot.
Barbara McQuade, a former US attorney in Detroit who has sued auto companies and employees in fraud cases and is not involved in the ongoing investigation, said investigators likely need to uncover evidence such as emails or other internal communications showing that Tesla and Musk made misleading claims. on the capabilities of the autopilot on purpose.
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