Tesla under US criminal investigation over self-driving claims, report says

Probe was launched last year following more than a dozen crashes

A Tesla Model 3 vehicle drives on autopilot in Westminster, California. Reuters
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

Tesla is under criminal investigation in the US over claims that the company's electric vehicles can drive themselves, three people familiar with the matter said.

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

As early as 2016, Tesla’s marketing materials have touted Autopilot’s capabilities. On a conference call that year, Elon Musk, the Silicon Valley car maker’s chief executive, described it as “probably better” than a human driver.

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

A video currently on the company’s website says: “The person 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 has explicitly warned drivers that they must keep their hands on the wheel and maintain control of their vehicles while using Autopilot.

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

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. Mr Musk also did not respond to written questions seeking comment. A Justice Department representative declined to comment.

Mr 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.

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 inquiry 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 unsupported claims about its driver assistance technology's capabilities, the sources said.

Officials conducting their inquiry could ultimately pursue criminal charges, seek civil sanctions or close the investigation without taking any action, they said.

Updated: October 27, 2022, 5:16 PM
EDITOR'S PICKS
NEWSLETTERS
MORE FROM THE NATIONAL