To say that Tesla has a lot of fans is an understatement—but investigations into some of its claims, particularly the Autopilot future, are stacking up. The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has been on the case since August, 2021. The California Department of Motor Vehicles is currently investigating claims of false advertising on Tesla’s part regarding that feature—but these two agencies aren’t alone in their investigative efforts.
On October 25, 2022, Reuters exclusively reported that the U.S. Department of Justice has apparently been conducting a criminal probe into claims that Tesla vehicles can drive themselves. The probe began sometime in 2021, according to the report—although exact details aren’t clear. Reuters cited three people familiar with the matter as its sources.
The investigation began after over a dozen crashes involving Teslas using the Autopilot feature were reported—some of which had been fatal. For those keeping track of Tesla Autopilot-involved incidents that have resulted in motorcyclist deaths, there’s a sort of grim, cautious relief that it’s being taken at least a little bit seriously.
However, as has been reported virtually whenever the subject of Tesla Autopilot criticism comes up, Elon Musk and Tesla seemingly speak out both sides of their mouths regarding the “Autopilot” and “Full Self Driving” features. The words—for anyone speaking English—seem to mean one thing, and imply certain promises to both drivers and the general public.
Yet, in what appears to be a classic case of covering their butts, official Tesla videos and documentation advise that a driver should still be at the controls, and that these products are not fully autonomous at this time. (You can almost see the wink, can’t you?)
Unfortunately, therein may lie the problem. While no criminal charges have been filed at this point, the fact that Tesla has phrased things certain ways and made certain statements may make it more difficult to file charges. Reuters spoke to former U.S. district attorney Barbara McQuade about the matter, because she has the necessary expertise but is not directly involved in any of the ongoing investigations. She said, unsurprisingly, that investigators would need to turn up evidence that demonstrates purposeful misleading statements made by Tesla regarding these features.
At this point, it’s only a probe—and whether any action is taken or not after the probe is complete remains to be seen as of October, 2022. We’ll be keeping a close eye on any developments and will be sure to keep you updated.