Tesla is reportedly the target of a criminal investigation in the United States as its driver assistance technology – and the claims it has made about it – come under the microscope.
Reuters The US Department of Justice (DOJ) launched an investigation last year after more than a dozen crashes involving Tesla’s Autopilot system, according to three people familiar with the matter.
Some of these accidents were fatal.
Prosecutors in Washington and San Francisco are reportedly investigating whether Tesla misled consumers, investors and regulators by making unsubstantiated claims about the potential of its driver assistance technology.
This investigation involves a more serious level of scrutiny than previous ones because it could lead to criminal charges against the company or individual executives, the sources said.
The Justice Department may also seek civil penalties.
The Autopilot probe is currently competing with two other Justice Department investigations involving Tesla, one of the sources told Reuters, adding that much work remains to be done and no resolution is imminent.
Autopilot is considered a Level 2 autonomous driving feature, as is the Full Self-Driving beta – despite what its name seems to imply.
Level 2 technology requires constant attention from the driver, even as the vehicle takes over control of acceleration, braking and steering.
Tesla says this does not await regulatory approval for autonomous driving technology by next year. Full self-driving technology is slated for widespread release this quarter.
Federal and California safety regulators are already scrutinizing whether Tesla encouraged owners to treat their cars as self-driving.
In August 2021, the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration opened an investigation into a series of crashes, one fatal, when a Tesla equipped with Autopilot collided with stationary emergency and road maintenance vehicles.
NHTSA’s active probe covers 830,000 Tesla vehicles equipped with Autopilot.
In June 2022, the company confirmed it was progressing its investigation to an “engineering analysis”, identifying 16 accidents. This step is required before he can request a withdrawal.
A month later, the California Department of Motor Vehicles accused Tesla of misleading customers about the capabilities of its autopilot and full self-driving systems. Tesla filed documents with the agency requesting a hearing.
The July 28 complaint to the California Office of Administrative Hearings sought to suspend or revoke Tesla’s license to sell and manufacture vehicles in the state.
He also called on Tesla to pay compensation to parties who suffered financial loss or damage, and to take any other “just and proper” action.
Tesla CEO Elon Musk spoke openly about the possibilities of his company’s driver assistance technology.
During a 2016 conference call, he described Autopilot as “probably better” than a human driver, though he has since moved the goalposts.
Just last week, he said the company’s driver-assistance technology would need to be updated by next year to “be able to show regulators that a car is safer than the average person,” and that fully autonomous cars Beta driving “will be able to get you from home to work, to a friend’s house, to the grocery store by touching the steering wheel.”
Sometimes he made contradictory statements in the same breath. In the same earnings report last week, Mr Musk said: “We are not saying that no one will be behind the wheel. It’s just that you almost never have to touch the controls, the car’s controllers.”
He went on to say: “But I think we’re going to be pretty close… by the end of this year you won’t have anyone in the car. And of course, without question, whatever I think, next year.”
Mr. Musk’s statements aside, Tesla has been careful to publish legal disclaimers that say its technology does not make the car autonomous.
For example, Tesla’s website warns that before engaging Autopilot, the driver must agree to “keep your hands on the wheel at all times” and to “maintain control and responsibility for your vehicle” at all times.
In an interview with Automotive news In 2020, after a German court called the Autopilot name a misnomer, Mr. Musk blamed misuse of the driver in subsequent criticism of its Autopilot feature.
“The few people who misuse autopilot are not because they are new to it and don’t understand it. People who use autopilot for the first time are very paranoid about it,” he said.
“So it’s not like, ‘Wow, if you had just used a different name, I would have treated it differently.’ People who are prone to something that just happened because someone is using it wrong and using it in the exact opposite of how we said it should be used.
“They ignored the car that was honking at them, flashing warnings, doing their best.
“It’s not like some newbie who just got a car and, based on the name, thought they’d instantly trust this car to drive itself. It’s an idiotic premise to be upset by the name Autopilot. An idiot.”
He added that the name comes from aviation technology that is designed to maintain altitude and course.