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

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

The U.S. Department of Justice launched the investigation last year after a dozen crashes, some of which were fatal, involved Tesla’s Autopilot driver assistance system, which was activated in accidents, said the people.

As of early 2016, Tesla’s marketing materials have mentioned the capabilities of Autopilot. At a conference last year, Elon Musk, the head of the Silicon Valley automaker, said it “could be better” than human driving.

Last week, Musk said in another call that Tesla will release an updated version of its “Full Self-Driving” software that will allow customers to go “to your work, your friend’s house, to you won’t touch 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 is not doing anything. The car is driving.”

However, the company has strongly warned drivers to keep their hands on the wheel and maintain control of their vehicle while using Autopilot.

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

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Such warnings could jeopardize any cases the Justice Department intends to bring, sources said.

Tesla, which eliminated its public relations department in 2020, did not respond to questions from Reuters on Wednesday. Musk did not respond to written inquiries seeking comment. A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment.

Musk said in an interview with Automotive News in 2020 that Autopilot problems arise from customers using the system in ways that differ from Tesla’s instructions.

Federal and California safety regulators are investigating whether claims about Autopilot’s capabilities and the system’s design give consumers a false sense of safety, prompting them to say Teslas have driverless cars and silence behind the wheel with deadly consequences.

The Justice Department’s investigation will feature the highest level of scrutiny because criminal charges could be brought against the company or individual executives, people familiar with the inquiry said.

As part of the new investigation, Justice Department prosecutors in Washington and San Francisco are investigating whether Tesla misled customers, investors and executives by making unsupported claims about the technology’s capabilities. driver assistance, sources said.

Officers conducting their own inquiries could face criminal charges, seek civil penalties or close the investigation without taking action, they said.

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The Justice Department’s Autopilot investigation is far from being announced because it is competing with two other DOJ investigations into Tesla, one of the sources said. Investigators still have a lot of work to do and no conclusions on the charges are imminent, this source said.

The Justice Department may also have trouble building its case, sources say, because of Tesla’s warnings about relying too much on Autopilot.

For example, after telling investors last week that Teslas will go faster without customers touching the controls, Musk added that cars still need someone to sit in. driver. “It’s like we can’t say it’s ready without someone behind the wheel,” he said.

The Tesla website also warns that, before enabling Autopilot, the driver must agree to “keep hands on the steering wheel at all times” and “maintain control and responsibility for your vehicle.”

Barbara McQuade, a former U.S. attorney in Detroit who has prosecuted auto companies and workers in fraud cases and was not involved in the current investigation, said investigators should present evidence such as in emails and other internal communications that show Tesla and Musk are miscommunications. for Autopilot’s capabilities on the project.

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There are many inspections

The Autopilot criminal probe is in addition to other investigations and legal issues involving Musk, who was locked in a court battle earlier this year after he abandoned a $44 billion takeover of the social media group Twitter Inc, just turned around and announced the excitement of the upcoming sale.

In August 2021, the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration opened an investigation into a number of crashes, one of which was fatal, involving Teslas with Autopilot crashing into stopped vehicles. .

NHTSA officials in June stepped up their investigation, covering 830,000 Teslas with Autopilot, identifying 16 crashes involving the company’s electric cars and first responder vehicles. and road maintenance vehicles. A move is a step that managers must take before applying for a refund. The department had no comment.

In July of this year, the California Department of Motor Vehicles accused Tesla of falsely advertising its Autopilot and self-driving capabilities that provide autonomous vehicle control. Tesla filed papers with the agency seeking a hearing on the allegations and saying it wants to defend them. The DMV said in a statement that the deal is under investigation and without comment.

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