Sources say Tesla is under US criminal investigation over self-driving allegations | tesla

Three people familiar with the matter said Tesla is under criminal investigation in the US over allegations that the company’s electric vehicles can drive themselves.

The US Department of Justice (DoJ) launched a previously undisclosed investigation last year after more than a dozen crashes, some of them fatal, involving Tesla’s driver assistance system, known as Autopilot, come into play during crashes.

As early as 2016, Tesla’s marketing materials touted Autopilot’s capabilities. In a conference call that year, Tesla CEO Elon Musk described it as “probably better” than a human driver.

Last week, Musk said in another call that Tesla will soon release an upgraded version of its “fully self-driving” software, allowing customers to “travel 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 states: “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 that they must keep their hands on the wheel and remain in control of their vehicle when using Autopilot.

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

Such warnings could complicate any case the justice department might want to bring, 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 asking for comment. A Justice Department spokesperson declined to comment.

In an interview with Automotive News in 2020, Musk said that Autopilot problems were caused by customers using the system in violation of Tesla’s instructions.

Federal and California safety regulators are already examining whether claims about Autopilot’s capabilities and the system’s design instill a false sense of security in customers, encouraging them to treat Teslas like truly self-driving cars and to remain indifferent behind the wheel with potentially fatal consequences.

People familiar with the investigation said the justice department investigation represents a potentially more serious level of scrutiny because of the possibility of criminal charges against the company or individual directors.

As part of the latest investigation, sources are examining whether prosecutors in Washington and San Francisco misled consumers, investors and regulators by making unsupported claims about the capabilities of Tesla’s driver-assist technology.

Authorities conducting their investigation said they could eventually initiate criminal proceedings, seek civil sanctions or close the investigation without taking any action.

One source said the DoJ is far from recommending any action, partly because the Autopilot investigation competes with two other DoJ investigations involving Tesla. That source said investigators still have a lot of work to do and that no decision on the charges is imminent.

Sources said the justice department may also face difficulties in forming its case, due to Tesla’s warnings about over-reliance on Autopilot.

Barbara McQuade, a former US attorney who prosecuted auto companies and employees in fraud cases in Detroit and was not involved in the current investigation, said investigators will need to uncover evidence such as emails or other internal communications that show Tesla and Musk made misleading statements. About the knowing abilities of the autopilot.

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