The U.S. 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 those vehicles.
According to a Reuters exclusive report, which is based on information from unnamed sources at the Justice Dept., officals are investigating “whether Tesla misled consumers, investors, and regulators by making unsupported claims about its driver assistance technology’s capabilities.”
The probe could result in criminal liability as well as damage to certain civil cases currently underway. Reuters also notes two other DOJ investigations into Tesla are pending.
Meanwhile, Tesla CEO Elon Musk stated last week the company expects to release an update to its Full Self-Driving (FSD) software that will not have regulatory approval as self-driving. Musk said during the company’s recent earnings call, “The car will be able to take you from your home to your work, your friend’s house, the grocery store without you touching the wheel.”
In the event of collisions suffered while using the feature, Musk’s comments could be damaging to the company’s case.
Regulatory approval for FSD would come from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, or NHTSA, as well as from the State of California for use within its borders. That approval will be more difficult as additional Federal lawsuits and investigations are underway.
NHTSA and California also investigating
Tesla’s Autopilot technology has also drawn scrutiny from the NHTSA and the California Department of Motor Vehicles. Tesla’s claims and collision history have triggered a number of ongoing probes by NHTSA and a separate investigation by California regulators who have accused the automaker of false advertising — something that could see the carmaker barred from selling its products in the Golden State.
The California DMV previously stated it’s conducting an ongoing review of the design and capability of Tesla vehicles. Tesla had sidestepped California regulators by claiming Full Self-Driving does not make the vehicle autonomous, although Musk has been telling consumers they can drive without touching the steering wheel.
The California DMV stated Tesla “made or disseminated statements that are untrue or misleading, and not based on facts” concerning its capabilities. Referencing ads for Autopilot and Full Self-Driving, the DMV said that Tesla products “could not at the time of those advertisements, and cannot now, operate as autonomous vehicles.”
Class-action suits over Autopilot
Groups of unhappy Tesla owners have already banded together to sue the automaker over its claims. A lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. In the suit, plaintiff Briggs Matsko alleges that Tesla and Musk intentionally “deceived and misled consumers regarding the current abilities of its (Autopilot and FSD) technology and by representing that it was perpetually on the cusp of perfecting that technology and finally fulfilling its promise of producing a fully self-driving car.”
The lawsuit specifically refers to statements and tweets by Musk hyping the two systems. In 2019, for example, the CEO said 1 million Tesla vehicles would soon be capable of operating as robotaxis that owners could then use to make money.
“A year from now, we’ll have over a million cars with full self-driving, software … everything,” Musk declared, after making similar claims for nearly a decade.
A transcript of a January 2022 earnings call, meanwhile, saw Musk again promising that true autonomous capabilities were within a year to 18 months away from production:
“Full Self-Driving. So, over time, we think Full Self-Driving will become the most important source of profitability for Tesla. It’s — actually, if you run the numbers on robotaxis, it’s kind of nutty — it’s nutty good from a financial standpoint. And I think we are completely confident at this point that it will be achieved. And my personal guess is that we’ll achieve Full Self-Driving this year, yes, with data safety level significantly greater than present.”
In the class action lawsuit, 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 been remotely close to achieving that goal.”
Tesla has issued a video currently stating, “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 notes that the driver must keep hands on the steering wheel and is responsible for maintaining control of the vehicle. The company has further stated that these features, “do not make the vehicle autonomous.” Contradictions such as these will certainly be part of the court battles.