The U.S. Justice Department launched an undisclosed investigation last year following more than a dozen crashes, some of which were fatal, in which Tesla’s autonomous driver assistance system was activated during crashes, the victims said.
As early as 2016, Tesla 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 in another conference call that Tesla would soon release an improved version of its “fully self-driving” software that would allow customers to drive “to work, to a friend, to the grocery store without touching the steering wheel.”
A video currently on the company’s website reads: “The person in the driver’s seat is only there for legal reasons. He’s not doing anything. The car is driving itself.”
However, the company expressly cautions that when using Autopilot, you must keep your hands on the wheel and remain in control of the vehicle.
Tesla’s technology is designed to assist with steering, braking, acceleration and lane changes, but its features “do not drive the vehicle itself,” the company says on its website.
The sources said the warnings would complicate any case the justice minister wanted to pursue.
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 requests for comment. A spokesman for the justice minister declined to comment.
Musk said in a 2020 Automotive News interview that problems with Autopilot stem from customers using the system against Tesla’s instructions.
Federal and California safety regulators are already investigating whether claims about Autopilot’s capabilities and the system’s design are giving customers a false sense of security and prompting Tesla to view them as truly driverless cars and complacency behind the wheel.
The Justice Department’s investigation could come under more intense scrutiny because of the possibility of criminal charges against the company or individual executives, people familiar with the investigation said.
In the latest investigation, prosecutors from the Washington and San Francisco Justice Departments are investigating whether Tesla misled consumers, investors and regulators by making unsubstantiated claims about the capabilities of its driver assistance technology.
Investigators could eventually file criminal charges, seek civil penalties or simply drop the investigation without taking action, they added.
The judicial inquiry into Autopilot is far from recommending any action because it is competing with two other judicial investigations involving Tesla, one of the sources said. Investigators still have a lot of work to do, and no decision on charges was immediate, the source said.
Because of Tesla’s warnings about over-reliance on Autopilot, the Justice Department may face difficulties in making its case, the sources said.
For example, after Tesla said on a conference call with investors last week that customers will soon move without touching the controls, Musk said vehicles still need someone in the driver’s seat. “We’re not saying no one is ready to be behind the wheel,” he said.
Tesla’s website warns that before enabling Autopilot, the driver must first agree to “keep their hands on the wheel at all times” and “maintain control and responsibility of your vehicle at all times.”
Barbara McQuade, a former Detroit U.S. attorney who has prosecuted auto companies and employees in fraud cases and is not involved in the current investigation, said investigators need to find evidence, such as emails or other internal communications, that Tesla and Musk knowingly mislead. Claims about autopilot capabilities.
The Autopilot criminal investigation adds to other investigations and legal issues involving Musk, who earlier this year locked himself in a legal battle after walking away from a $44 billion acquisition of social media giant Twitter. Upcoming acquisitions.
In August 2021, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) opened an investigation into a series of accidents, including one fatality when Teslas equipped with Autopilot crashed into parked emergency vehicles.
In June, NHTSA officials stepped up their investigation, identifying 16 crashes involving 830,000 Autopilot-equipped Teslas, the company’s electric cars and parked first-aid and road maintenance vehicles. This process is a step regulators must go through before requesting a recall. The agency had no immediate comment.
In July of this year, the California Department of Motor Vehicles accused Tesla of misrepresenting its Autopilot and fully self-driving features, claiming it enabled autonomous vehicle control. Tesla has filed documents with the agency requesting an investigation into the allegations and has indicated it intends to defend itself against them. The DMV said in a statement that it is currently in the discovery phase of the proceedings and declined to comment further.