Tesla Facing Criminal Investigation for Autopilot Crashes

The company now faces an additional level of scrutiny from the federal government beyond potential recalls.

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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.
  • Adding onto the NHTSA probes and various state investigations, the DOJ could bring criminal charges or civil sanctions against the company and its executives if evidence of purposeful 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 debuted its semi-autonomous driving system called Autopilot in 2015, the supposed self-driving renaissance was in full effect. Autonomous technology firms and manufacturers like Tesla were pushing the narrative that self-driving cars were here, while regulators and consumers tried to figure out how they fit into the picture. As it turns out, the relationship between regulators and consumers has remained tight, as the overall automotive industry has taken a more cautious approach to autonomous driving. Tesla, on the other hand, doubled down on its semi-autonomous technology with a beta "Full Self-Driving" mode, and now it may pay the price.

    The US Department of Justice has disclosed an ongoing criminal investigation of Tesla following numerous crashes related to the company's Autopilot system. Specifically, the department is examining whether Tesla misled consumers, regulators, and investors in the rollout of the semi-autonomous technology. This DOJ probe adds to an existing network of investigations and lawsuits facing Tesla, including a National Highway Transportation Safety Administration probe into fatal crashes involving Autopilot. California's Department of Motor Vehicles has also accused Tesla of falsely advertising its semi-autonomous vehicle capabilities as fully autonomous.

    tesla autopilot
    Autopilot does require the driver’s hands to remain on the wheel (or yoke) while moving, but Autopilot related crashes have happened even when drivers remained attentive.

    This announcement comes shortly after Tesla CEO Elon Musk claimed the official version of Full Self-Driving will be available later this year. But that plan may be in jeopardy now, given that Tesla is known for backtracking on production dates and technology launches even without pressure from federal agencies. Additionally, it's no surprise that regulators are wary of the company's genuine autonomous capabilities, given the number of fatal crashes involving Autopilot.

    Critics of Tesla say its approach to semi-autonomous safety monitoring is reckless, 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 choice to only use cameras has been criticized as too simple and lacking in appropriate redundancy. Combined with marketing claims that drivers are only needed for legal reasons and that the car is in fact driving itself, the SAE Level 2 system has been under consumer and regulatory fire since its inception.

    tesla model 3
    Tesla’s Model 3 was one of the first models to have its Autopilot-augmenting radar removed in 2021, inevitably replaced by an all-camera system known as Tesla Vision.

    And the DOJ's criminal probe will attempt to understand how these technological systems and marketing statements came together to inform consumers. If investigators find evidence that Tesla provided intentionally misleading information, the department could pursue criminal charges against the company or individual executives. Civil sanctions could also be on the table, but reporting from Reuters claims the DOJ isn't likely to recommend any action soon.

    Proving that Tesla purposefully misled consumers and regulators could be challenging, considering the company does provide numerous warnings to drivers about keeping 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 as far as to say, "we’re not saying that that’s quite ready to have no one behind the wheel," treading a thin line between his more recent statements that Full Self-Driving will take you around town without touching the wheel.

    The company has yet to say anything about the DOJ probe, and the 2020 dissolution of Tesla's media relations department means it's unlikely the company will comment in any official capacity. Tesla is in for a turbulent period ahead, with a variety of cases on the docket and alleged commercial model deliveries coming soon. As the company wades through a web of federal regulators and internal developments, Tesla remains a pivotal player in the EV market, with $3.33 billion of net income on revenues of $21.45 billion for Q3 of 2022. With new tech, an enthusiastic fan base, and the potential for more affordable models on the way, Tesla wants to maintain its sizable lead in the EV market, despite another federal investigation.

    Do you support a criminal investigation of Tesla for its Autopilot system? Please comment below.

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