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Tesla Said to Face US Criminal Probe Into Self-Driving Claims Following Multiple Crashes




By Reuters | Updated: 27 October 2022

Officials conducting their inquiry could ultimately pursue criminal charges, seek civil sanctions or close the probe without taking any action, they said.

The Justice Department’s Autopilot probe is far from recommending any action partly because it is competing with two other DOJ investigations involving Tesla, one of the sources said. Investigators still have much work to do and no decision on charges is imminent, this source said.

The Justice Department may also face challenges in building its case, said the sources, because of Tesla’s warnings about overreliance on Autopilot.

For instance, after telling the investor call last week that Teslas would soon travel without customers touching controls, Musk added that the vehicles still needed someone in the driver’s seat. “Like we’re not saying that that’s quite ready to have no one behind the wheel,” he said.

The Tesla website also cautions that, before enabling Autopilot, the driver first needs to agree to “keep your hands on the steering wheel at all times” and to always “maintain control and responsibility for your vehicle.”

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

Several probes

The criminal Autopilot investigation adds to the other probes and legal issues involving Musk, who became locked in a court battle earlier this year after abandoning a $44 billion (roughly Rs. 3,62,100 crore) takeover of social media giant Twitter, only to reverse course and proclaim excitement for the looming acquisition.

In August 2021, the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration opened an investigation into a series of crashes, one of them fatal, involving Teslas equipped with Autopilot slamming into parked emergency vehicles.

NHTSA officials in June intensified their probe, which covers 830,000 Teslas with Autopilot, identifying 16 crashes involving the company’s electric cars and stationary first-responder and road maintenance vehicles. The move is a step that regulators must take before requesting a recall. The agency had no immediate comment.

In July this year, the California Department of Motor Vehicles accused Tesla of falsely advertising its Autopilot and Full Self-Driving capability as providing autonomous vehicle control. Tesla filed paperwork with the agency seeking a hearing on the allegations and indicated it intends to defend against them. The DMV said in a statement it is currently in the discovery stage of the proceeding and declined further comment.