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Tesla faces US criminal investigation over self-driving claims: sources tell Reuters


Tesla Inc. is under criminal investigation in the United States for claims that the company’s electric vehicles can drive themselves, three people familiar with the matter said.

The US Department of Justice kicked off its previously undisclosed investigation last year after more than a dozen crashes, some of them fatal, involving Tesla’s Autopilot driver assistance system, activated in the crash, residents said.

As early as 2016, Tesla marketing materials advertised Autopilot’s capabilities. During a conference call that year, Elon Musk, the chief executive officer of the Silicon Valley automaker, described it as “probably better” than a human driver.

Last week, Musk said in another call, Tesla will soon release an upgraded version of its “Full Self-Driving” software that will allow customers to go “to your work, your friend’s house, to your door.” groceries without touching the wheel.”

A video available on the company’s website says: “The person in the driver’s seat was only there for legal reasons. He did nothing. The car is driving itself.”

However, the company has also explicitly warned drivers that they must stay at the wheel and maintain control of their vehicle while using Autopilot.

Tesla’s technology is designed to assist with steering, braking, speed changes and lane changes, but its features “do not help the car drive itself,” the company says on its website.

Such warnings could complicate any case the Justice Department might want to bring, the sources said.

Tesla, which disbanded its media relations division in 2020, did not respond to written questions from Reuters on Wednesday. Musk also did not respond to written questions seeking comment. A spokesman for the Justice Department declined to comment.

Musk said in an interview with Automotive News in 2020 that Autopilot’s problems stemmed from customers using the system in ways that were contrary to Tesla’s guidelines.

Federal and California safety regulators have scrutinized whether claims about Autopilot’s capabilities and the system’s design mislead customers into making them see Teslas as cars. truly driverless cars and become complacent behind the wheel with potentially deadly consequences.

People familiar with the investigation said the Justice Department investigation is likely to represent a more stringent level of scrutiny because of the potential for criminal charges against the company or individual executives.

As part of the latest investigation, Justice Department prosecutors in Washington and San Francisco are looking into whether Tesla misled consumers, investors and regulators, the sources said. not by making unsupported claims about the capabilities of driver assistance technology.

Officials conducting their investigations may ultimately pursue criminal charges, seek civil sanctions or close the investigation without taking any action, they said.

The Justice Department’s Autopilot investigation did not take any action in part because it was competing with two other DOJ investigations involving Tesla, one of the sources said. The source said investigators still have a lot of work to do and no decision on charges is imminent.

The sources said the Justice Department could also face challenges in formulating its case, because of Tesla’s warnings about excessive compliance with Autopilot.

For example, after telling investors last week that Teslas would soon move without a customer touching a remote, Musk added that the vehicles still need people in the driver’s seat. “It’s like we’re not saying we’re ready to have no one behind the wheel,” he said.

Tesla’s website also warns that, before turning on Autopilot, drivers must first agree to “keep their hands on the wheel at all times” and to always “maintain control and responsibility for their vehicle.” .

Barbara McQuade, a former US attorney in Detroit who has prosecuted auto companies and employees in fraud cases and is not involved in the current investigation, said investigators will likely need to discovered evidence such as emails or other internal communications that Tesla and Musk made misleading statements about Autopilot’s capabilities on purpose.

HUGE PROFITS

The Autopilot criminal investigation adds to investigations and other legal issues involving Musk, who was locked in a court fight earlier this year after dropping out of an acquisition of 44 billion dollars of social media giant Twitter Inc, only to reverse course and declare excitement over the deal lurking.

In August 2021, the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration opened an investigation into a series of collisions, one of which were fatal, involving Teslas equipped with Autopilot crashing. the emergency vehicles are parked.

NHTSA officials in June stepped up their investigation, including 830,000 Teslas with Autopilot, identifying 16 crashes involving the company’s electric cars and stationary first-aid and road maintenance vehicles. . The move is one step that regulators must take before requesting a recall. The agency was not immediately available for comment.

In July of this year, the California Department of Motor Vehicles accused Tesla of falsely advertising its Self-Driving and Fully Self-Driving capabilities to provide autonomous vehicle control. Tesla has filed paperwork with the agency seeking a hearing on the allegations and said it intends to defend against them. The DMV said in a statement it is currently in the exploratory phase of the proceedings and declined to comment further.


Additional reporting by Hyunjoo Jin and David Shepardson; Edited by Deepa Babington

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