Tesla Inc is being investigated criminally in the United States over claims that its electric vehicles can drive themselves, according to three people familiar with the situation.
According to People, the US Department of Justice launched the previously unknown investigation last year in response to more than a dozen crashes, some of which were fatal, involving Tesla’s driver assistance system Autopilot, which was activated during the accidents.
Federal and California safety regulators are already investigating on if claims about Autopilot’s capabilities and design instil customers with an erroneous sense of security, leading them to treat Teslas as truly driverless cars and become careless behind the wheel, potentially leading to fatal consequences.
Tesla’s marketing materials bragged about Autopilot’s capabilities as early as 2016. Elon Musk, the Silicon Valley automaker’s CEO at the time, described it as “probably better” than a human driver during a conference call that year.
On another call last week, Musk stated that Tesla would soon release an upgraded version of its “Full Self-Driving” software, allowing customers to travel “to your work, your home.”
According to a video on the company’s website, “the person in the driver’s seat is only there for legal reasons.” He’s not doing anything as the car drives itself.
However, the company has specifically warned drivers that when using Autopilot, they must maintain control of their vehicles by keeping their hands on the wheel.
Tesla’s technology is created to aid in steering, braking, speed, and lane changes, but the company claims that its features “do not make the vehicle autonomous.”
Previous probes on Tesla
The criminal Autopilot investigation is in addition to the other investigations and legal issues involving Musk, who was embroiled in a court battle earlier this year after abandoning a $44 billion takeover of social media giant Twitter Inc, only to reverse course and express excitement about the impending acquisition.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration launched an investigation into a series of crashes, one of which was fatal, involving Teslas equipped with Autopilot slamming into parked emergency vehicles in August 2021.
In June, NHTSA officials expanded their investigation into 830,000 Teslas equipped with Autopilot, identifying 16 crashes involving the company’s electric vehicles as well as stationary first-responder and road maintenance vehicles. The move is a prerequisite for regulators to request a recall. There was no immediate response from the agency.
The California Department of Motor Vehicles accused Tesla of falsely advertising its Autopilot and Full Self-Driving capability as providing autonomous vehicle control in July of this year. Tesla has requested a hearing on the allegations and has stated that it intends to defend against them. The DMV stated in a statement that the case is currently in the discovery stage and turned down additional statement.