Tesla Facing DOJ Probe And Possible Criminal Charges Over Autopilot

Government / 9 Comments

Tesla might be facing its toughest challenge yet.

When it comes to Tesla, there's no shortage of controversy. Every positive piece of news that flows out of the American automaker's offices in Texas is usually followed by five controversial pieces. Most of it stems from company CEO Elon Musk, who has a propensity for making wild claims and unrealistic promises.

The automaker could possibly be facing its biggest crisis yet, as the US Department of Justice (DoJ) has launched a criminal probe into Tesla's autonomous claims. Reuters spoke to three people familiar with the matter, who stated that the unannounced probe was launched last year after more than a dozen crashes in which Autopilot was involved. Some of these accidents had fatal consequences. This matches up with information released by the National Highway Safety Administration (NHTSA) earlier this week.

The NHTSA did not mention this DoJ probe, but we do know that its also currently investigating 38 Autopilot-related crashes.


The DoJ's probe is more serious than California's bill to change the names of Tesla's Full Self-Driving and Autopilot driver assistance systems and the NHTSA investigation mentioned above. According to the sources, the Justice Department could open criminal charges against Tesla or individual executives.

The probe is currently trying to establish whether Tesla misled consumers, investors, and regulators by making unsubstantiated claims about Autopilot and Full Self-Driving's abilities. According to the sources, if this is indeed the case, the Justice Department could go in one of three directions. It could go ahead with criminal charges, push for civil sanctions, or close the probe and do nothing.

The sources also state that the Justice Department is far from deciding on charges because there is still much to do, and there are two other DoJ investigations into Tesla.

Twitter/Culver City Firefighters

The Justice Department might struggle to build its case. While Elon Musk has made some outrageous claims about Teslas in the past, the company's website has a very clear disclaimer. If you order a Model 3, for example, and scroll down to the $6,000 Enhanced Autopilot and $15,000 Full Self-Driving Capability options, you'll find it:

"The currently enabled features require active driver supervision and do not make the vehicle autonomous. The activation and use of these features are dependent on achieving reliability far in excess of human drivers, as demonstrated by billions of miles of experience, as well as regulatory approval, which may take longer in some jurisdictions. As these self-driving features evolve, your car will be continuously upgraded through over-the-air software updates."

There are also warnings to "keep your hands on the steering wheel at all times" and to always "maintain control and responsibility for your vehicle."

Martin Grefte via Twitter YouTube

Reuters approached Barbara McQuade, a former US attorney in Detroit, for comment. According to McQuade, investigators would likely need hard evidence like e-mails or internal communications proving that misleading statements were made.

Basically, the DoJ can't rely on Tesla customers doing idiotic things like using their own kids as crash test dummies. It needs to prove that Tesla misled the owner into believing their car could do such things.

It's clear this investigation will take some time, but if the Justice Department does go ahead, this could be a huge blow for the automaker and, potentially, its senior executives too. We'll report back as this story develops.

City of Corvallis Police Department KHOU 11/YouTube
Source Credits: Reuters

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