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- The US Department of Justice has disclosed an ongoing criminal investigation into the potential that Tesla misled consumers, investors and regulators with its Autopilot system.
- In addition to the NHTSA investigation and various federal investigations, the DOJ could seek criminal charges or civil penalties against the company and its officers if evidence of intentional deception is found.
- This announcement comes days after Elon Musk announced that Tesla’s Full Self-Driving software will be available by the end of the year.
When Tesla introduced its semi-autonomous driving system called Autopilot in 2015, the supposed renaissance of autonomous driving was in full swing. Autonomous tech firms and manufacturers like Tesla pushed the narrative that self-driving cars were here, while regulators and consumers tried to figure out how to fit the picture. As it turns out, the relationship between regulators and consumers remains tight as the entire auto industry takes a more cautious approach to autonomous driving. Tesla, on the other hand, has doubled down on its semi-autonomous technology with a beta “Full Self-Driving” mode, and now it could pay the price.
The US Department of Justice has announced an ongoing criminal investigation into Tesla following numerous crashes related to the company’s Autopilot system. Specifically, the department is examining whether Tesla misled consumers, regulators and investors when introducing the semi-autonomous technology. This DOJ investigation adds to an existing network of investigations and lawsuits against Tesla, including an investigation by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration into autopilot fatalities. The California Department of Motor Vehicles has also accused Tesla of falsely advertising its semi-autonomous vehicle capabilities as fully autonomous.
This announcement comes shortly after Tesla CEO Elon Musk claimed that the official version of Full Self-Driving will be available later this year. But that plan could be in jeopardy now that Tesla is known for tracking production dates and technology launches even without pressure from federal agencies. Additionally, it’s no surprise that regulators are fed up with the company’s true autonomous capabilities given the number of deadly autopilot crashes.
Tesla critics say its approach to semi-autonomous security surveillance is ruthless considering it only uses a proprietary camera-based system called Tesla Vision. While manufacturers like GM and Nissan use a mix of cameras, radar and LiDAR, Tesla’s decision to only use cameras has been criticized for being too simple and without adequate redundancy. Combined with marketing claims that drivers are only needed for legal reasons and that the car actually drives itself, the SAE Level 2 system has been under consumer and regulatory fire since its inception.
And the DOJ’s criminal investigation will seek to understand how these technological systems and marketing claims came together to inform consumers. If investigators find evidence that Tesla intentionally provided misleading information, the department could file criminal charges against the company or individual executives. Civil law sanctions could also be on the table, but log off Reuters claims the DOJ is unlikely to recommend any action any time soon.
Proving that Tesla intentionally misled consumers and regulators could be challenging, given the company’s numerous warnings to drivers to keep their hands on the wheel while using Autopilot. It also clarifies that the autopilot system does not make the car fully autonomous. Musk has gone so far as to say, “We’re not saying that’s pretty willing to have nobody behind the wheel,” walking a fine line between his more recent statements that full self-driving will get you around town without touching the car wheel.
The company has yet to say anything about the DOJ investigation, and the dissolution of Tesla’s press office in 2020 means the company is unlikely to comment in any official capacity. Tesla is in for a turbulent period, with a multitude of cases on the agenda and rumored commercial model deliveries to come soon. As the company wades through a web of federal agencies and internal developments, Tesla remains a key player in the electric vehicle market, with net income of $3.33 billion and revenue of $21.45 billion in the third quarter of 2022. With new technology, an enthusiastic fan base, and the potential for more affordable models on the way, Tesla aims to maintain its sizable lead in the EV market despite another federal investigation.
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