Department of Justice Launches Criminal Probe Into Tesla Self-Driving Claims
News broke Wednesday that Tesla was under investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice, regarding the company’s claims about the self-driving nature of its vehicles. The DOJ has been working on the investigation for some time, as it was launched in 2021 but was not disclosed at that time. Turns out it might be time for a government evaluation of whether “Full Self-Driving” Teslas are misleading.
The DOJ decided to investigate Tesla and its self-driving claims after over a dozen crashes in the United States that involved a Tesla where Autopilot was activated during the crash. Some of the crashes included in the investigation were severe, with fatalities. Despite this, Tesla has long expressed the wonderful nature of its self-developed Autopilot and has marketed its suite of capabilities since 2016.
Even in its early days, it was declared by Tesla CEO Elon Musk as “probably better” than having a human driver behind the wheel. The company has continued to update and improve Autopilot’s capabilities and claimed to move ever-closer to the full self-driving future so many consumers want. In fact, the full-featured version of Autopilot is actually called “Full Self-Driving.” It’s presently available to Tesla buyers as a not inconsiderable $15,000 add-on to Autopilot, the latter of which is included as standard on all Teslas.
Tesla continues to use this marketing tactic, even while the company admits its advanced driver assistance will not gain the necessary regulatory approval to call it autonomous in 2022. When the software has faced regulatory questions from states, the company has claimed the Full Self-Driving features do not actually make the cars autonomous.
Meanwhile, Musk promised last week that the upcoming version of Full Self-Driving will allow you to travel “...to your work, your friend’s house, to the grocery store without you touching the wheel.” However, this update is still pending release.
It seems the marketing department is not willing to wait for the fully-fledged version of Full Self-Driving or the results of the DOJ investigation, as the company currently displays a video on its website that suggests autonomy is here. “The person in the driver’s seat is only there for legal reasons. He is not doing anything. The car is driving itself,” says the video.
The Tesla site speaks from the other side of its mouth in print when it says that the company’s technology assists with steering, braking, speed, and lane changes but said features do not make the vehicle autonomous. This sort of claim-plus-disclaimer combo makes bringing a case against the automaker more complicated, per sources familiar with the DOJ matters.
Reuters requested comment on the DOJ story prior to publication but did not receive a response from Tesla. That’s in part because the company has a history of avoiding media questions, but also because Tesla hasn’t had a PR department since 2020 when it closed down those operations.
At the heart of the investigation is a consideration of whether Tesla misled American consumers, its investors, and indeed state and federal regulators regarding its driver assistance claims. It’s suggested this could lead to criminal charges against the company generally, or individual executives who supported such claims on the company’s driver assistance tech.
DOJ personnel in Washington state and San Francisco are currently investigating whether Tesla actually made claims and statements that add up to be misleading and unsupported. There are currently three ongoing Tesla investigations within the Justice Department, which is slowing progress on the current probe into Autopilot.
Aside from the trio of DOJ investigations, the NHTSA finally launched its own probe into Tesla crashes in August of 2021. Their investigation covers 830,000 Tesla vehicles equipped with Autopilot and was launched after mounting concern that Teslas using Autopilot could not see large stationary vehicles. The NHTSA cites 16 crashes in its investigation where a Tesla ran into a stationary emergency or road maintenance vehicle.
The NHTSA’s investigation is the first step in a series that must be taken to determine whether a federally-requested recall is in order. Yours truly opined it was past time for such an action for Autopilot in January of 2020 after 14 crashes had occurred between Teslas on Autopilot and stationary vehicles.
Rounding out the current investigations is an ongoing one from the California DMV, which accused Tesla of false advertising in July 2020. California claims the company advertised Autopilot and Full Self-Driving as providing autonomous vehicle control when it does not. Tesla has requested a formal hearing so it could defend itself against such allegations. That case has not proceeded past evidence discovery at this point in time.
Though there have been fatalities, at the end of the day there’s still a disclaimer on all Autopilot systems. Before a driver can enable the Autopilot system, they must agree on the vehicle’s screen to “keep your hands on the steering wheel at all times,” and “maintain control and responsibility for your vehicle.” Does that disclaimer overpower the dissenting marketing that says “Full Self-Driving” and “The car is driving itself?” We’ll see.
[Images: Tesla, NTSB]
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