Justice Department Opens Criminal Probe Into Tesla’s Self-Driving Claims: Report

Tesla and its executives could be subject to criminal charges over alleged misrepresentations of Autopilot’s capabilities.

byLewin Day| PUBLISHED Oct 26, 2022 7:45 PM
Justice Department Opens Criminal Probe Into Tesla’s Self-Driving Claims: Report
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Tesla is reportedly the focus of an active criminal investigation regarding its claims regarding the autonomous driving capabilities of its vehicles.

As reported by Reuters, which spoke to three anonymous individuals on the issue, the probe by the US Department of Justice began last year. Initially undisclosed to the public, it was launched in the wake of multiple crashes involving Tesla's Autopilot driver assist system, several of which were fatal.

Infamously, Tesla's Autopilot has been implicated in more crashes than any other manufacturer's driver assist system. From July 2021 to May 2022, the NHTSA recorded 273 crashes with Autopilot active. That's over three times as many as the next automaker, Honda, which recorded 68 in the same timeframe, with sister company Acura also recording 22 incidents. Plus, a quick visit to YouTube will turn up many compilations of the system getting into trouble.

Tesla has long touted the benefits and abilities of Autopilot, even prior to its first public release in late 2015. Since then, Tesla CEO Elon Musk has regularly asserted that Autopilot is, or would shortly be, safer than human drivers on the road. Autopilot officially requires drivers to keep their attention on the road and their hands on the wheel. However, owners regularly ignore this requirement, some going so far as to literally fall asleep at the wheel. Musk himself been criticized at times for not speaking out on the practice.

The criminal case concerns the company's specific claims regarding Autopilot's capabilities and its proper use. The company has, at times, suggested Autopilot is capable of driving the car by itself, including in videos still on the manufacturer's website. Given the officially-stated limits on Autopilot use, this could potentially be construed as misleading. However, the company has also included warnings indicating that Autopilot does not make Tesla vehicles autonomous. This could complicate the Justice Department's case according to sources speaking to Reuters.

While this case has only just come to light, it's not the only probe Tesla faces on the matter. The NHTSA is already investigating the company over Teslas repeatedly hitting stationary emergency vehicles while driving with Autopilot enabled. The California Department of Motor Vehicles has also filed complaints against the company's alleged misrepresentation of Autopilot functionality.

Sources indicated that prosecutors in Washington and San Francisco alike are investigating whether the company is guilty of misleading conduct, whether towards customers, government authorities, or Tesla investors. The probe could lead to criminal charges, or limit itself to seeking civil sanctions against the company. Alternatively, it may yet close without taking any action against the company. However, with criminal charges for the company or even individual executives on the line, the probe could have a greater impact than actions being taken by other regulators.

Given the high number of crashes with Autopilot implicated as a factor, the new investigation will come as welcome news to many. We've seen a persistent disregard for safety from many Autopilot users in the field, and it's putting many innocent road users at risk. It appears the Justice Department is preparing to assert that this problem didn't just come out of nowhere, and that Tesla may be responsible.

Got a tip? Let the atuhor know: lewin@thedrive.com