The US Department of Justice has opened a criminal investigation into Tesla Inc. based on the company’s claims about its Autopilot driver assistance system and the self-driving capabilities of these vehicles.
According to a Reuters exclusive reportwhich is based on information from unnamed Justice Department sources, officials are investigating “whether Tesla misled consumers, investors and regulators by making unsubstantiated claims about the capabilities of its assistive technology. conduct”.
The investigation could result in criminal liability as well as damage to certain civil cases currently pending. Reuters also notes that two other DOJ investigations into Tesla are ongoing.
Meanwhile, Tesla CEO Elon Musk said last week that the company plans to release an update to its Full Self-Driving (FSD) software that will not have regulatory approval as driving. autonomous. Musk said on the company’s recent earnings call, “The car will be able to take you from your home to your job, to your friend’s house, to the grocery store without you touching the steering wheel.”
In the event of a collision suffered while using the feature, Musk’s comments could be detrimental to the company’s record.
Regulatory approval for the FSD would come from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, or NHTSA, as well as the state of California for use within its borders. This approval will be more difficult as other federal lawsuits and investigations are ongoing.
NHTSA and California are also investigating
Tesla’s Autopilot technology has also caught the attention of NHTSA and the California Department of Motor Vehicles. Tesla’s claims and crash history have sparked a number of ongoing investigations by NHTSA and a separate investigation by California regulators. who accused the automaker of false advertising — something that could prevent the automaker from selling its products in the Golden State.
The California DMV has previously said it is conducting an ongoing review of the design and capabilities of Tesla vehicles. Tesla had skirted California regulators by saying full self-driving did not make the vehicle self-driving, although Musk told consumers they could drive without touching the steering wheel.
The California DMV said Tesla “has made or disseminated statements that are false or misleading, and not based on fact” regarding its capabilities. Referring to ads for Autopilot and Full Self-Driving, the DMV said Tesla products “could not, at the time of these ads, and cannot now, operate as autonomous vehicles.”
Class actions on autopilot
Groups of disgruntled Tesla owners have already banded together to sue the automaker over its claims. A lawsuit has been filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. In the lawsuit, plaintiff Briggs Matsko alleges that Tesla and Musk intentionally “deceived and misled consumers regarding the current capabilities of its technology (autopilot and FSD) and by stating that it was perpetually on the verge of perfecting this technology and finally fulfilling its promise to produce a fully autonomous car.
The lawsuit specifically references Musk’s statements and tweets promoting the two systems. In 2019, for example, the CEO said one million Tesla vehicles would soon be able to function as robotaxis that owners could then use to earn money.
“A year from now, we’ll have over a million fully self-driving cars, with software…everything,” Musk said, after making similar claims for nearly a decade.
Meanwhile, a transcript of a January 2022 earnings call saw Musk again promise that true standalone capabilities were less than a year to 18 months away from production:
“Fully self-driving. So over time, we believe that Full Self-Driving will become the most important source of profitability for Tesla. That’s — actually, if you’re running the numbers on robotaxis, that’s a bit crazy – it’s crazy from a financial standpoint. And I think we’re quite confident at this point that it will be achieved. And my personal guess is that we will achieve full self-driving this year, yes, with a much higher level of data security than it currently is.
In the class action, Matsko and his attorneys counter, “Contrary to Tesla’s repeated promises that it would have a fully self-driving car within months or a year, Tesla has never come close to achieving that goal.”
Tesla released a video currently stating, “The person in the driver’s seat is only there for legal reasons. He does nothing. The car drives itself. However, the company also notes that the driver must keep their hands on the wheel and are responsible for maintaining control of the vehicle. The company further stated that these features “do not make the vehicle self-driving”. Such contradictions will certainly be part of court battles.