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 US Department of Justice (DoJ) launched the previously undisclosed investigation last year following more than a dozen crashes, some of them fatal, involving Tesla’s driver assistance system known as Autopilot, which was activated during the accidents, the people said.
As early as 2016, Tesla’s marketing materials have touted Autopilot’s capabilities. On a conference call that year, Elon Musk, the Tesla chief executive, described it as “probably better” than a human driver.
Last week, Musk said on another call Tesla would soon release an upgraded version of “full self-driving” software, allowing customers to travel “to your work, your friend’s house, to the grocery store without you touching the wheel”.
A video currently on the company’s website says: “The person in the driver’s seat is only there for legal reasons. He is not doing anything. The car is driving itself.”
However, the company also has explicitly warned drivers that they must keep their hands on the wheel and maintain control of their vehicles while using Autopilot.
The 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 wish 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 seeking comment. A justice department spokesperson declined to comment.
Musk said in an interview with Automotive News in 2020 that Autopilot problems stem from customers using the system in ways contrary to Tesla’s instructions.
Federal and California safety regulators are already scrutinizing whether claims about Autopilot’s capabilities and the system’s design imbue customers with a false sense of security, inducing them to treat Teslas as truly driverless cars and become complacent behind the wheel with potentially deadly consequences.
The justice department investigation potentially represents a more serious level of scrutiny because of the possibility of criminal charges against the company or individual executives, the people familiar with the inquiry said.
As part of the latest investigation, prosecutors in Washington and San Francisco are examining whether Tesla misled consumers, investors and regulators by making unsupported claims about its driver assistance technology’s capabilities, the sources said.
Officials conducting their inquiry could ultimately pursue criminal charges, seek civil sanctions or close the investigation without taking any action, they said.
The DoJ’s Autopilot investigation is far from recommending any action partly because it is competing with two other DoJ investigations involving Tesla, one of the sources said. Investigators still have much work to do and no decision on charges is imminent, this source said.
The justice department may also face challenges in building its case, said the sources, because of Tesla’s warnings about over-reliance on Autopilot.
Barbara McQuade, a former US attorney in Detroit who prosecuted automotive companies and employees in fraud cases and is not involved in the current investigation, said investigators likely would need to uncover evidence such as emails or other internal communications showing that Tesla and Musk made misleading statements about Autopilot’s capabilities on purpose.