Tesla under Criminal Probe over Self-Driving Claims


Tesla car | Image by canadianPhotographer56

Tesla is allegedly under an open Department of Justice criminal investigation over claims that the company’s electric vehicles (EVs) can drive themselves.

Last year, the DOJ launched a criminal probe into Tesla over claims by the company that its EVs contain “full self-driving” software, despite reports of more than a dozen accidents involving the company’s driver assistance system Autopilot.

Federal regulators have already been examining whether claims about Tesla’s autopilot capabilities imbue customers with a false sense of security, convincing them to treat Tesla vehicles as truly driverless.

Tesla’s CEO Elon Musk has bragged about the vehicle’s self-driving capabilities as far back as 2016, claiming the Autopilot system probably had a better driving performance than that of a person.

“The person in the driver’s seat is only there for legal reasons. He is not doing anything. The car is driving itself,” according to the opening lines of a video advertising the Autopilot system on Tesla’s website.

Despite this demonstration of someone driving a Tesla EV without needing to interact with the wheel, the company’s website explicitly warns its drivers to “keep your hands on the steering wheel at all times” and to always “maintain control and responsibility for your vehicle.”

The website also clarifies that its self-driving technology only assists with steering, braking, speed, and lane changes and that its features “do not make the vehicle autonomous.”

When production of Tesla’s early model EVs began, customers had to pay between $5,000 and $8,000 for the Autopilot feature. As production expanded, however, Autopilot eventually became established as a basic feature at no extra charge.

Today, the automaker headquartered in Austin, Texas, is developing a complimentary $15,000 “Full Self-Driving” (FSD) add-on that enables additional autonomous features such as changing lanes and parking without any driver intervention.

During the company’s third-quarter earnings call, Musk announced that the FSD will be ready by the end of 2022, but it will not be available in 2023. The upgrade will have to first receive regulatory approval.

In the meantime, as part of the DOJ’s criminal probe into Tesla, Justice Department prosecutors in Washington and San Francisco will investigate whether Tesla customers, investors, and regulators were misled by the company’s advertising.

If the DOJ investigation bears fruit, federal prosecutors could pursue criminal charges, seek civil sanctions, or close the probe without taking any action.

Criminal charges would likely require evidence of intentional misrepresentation by Musk. Still, the criminal probe could pose a challenge for investigators because of Tesla’s explicit warning to customers about overreliance on Autopilot.

Musk dissolved his media relations team in 2021 over receiving what he said was unfair treatment from the press in regard to Tesla.

In keeping with this decision to no longer speak to the press, Musk did not respond to written questions seeking comment.

A spokesperson from the DOJ declined to comment.

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