Tesla Inc. is now facing a criminal investigation launched by the US Department of Justice over its advanced driver assistance system Autopilot, according to a report today by Reuters.
An investigation was launched last year, although it has so far remained unknown to the public. According to people familiar with the matter, the DOJ began investigating after a series of Tesla car crashes in which Autopilot was used. Some of these crashes were fatal. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is already investigating the accidents, tragedies that could have been avoided if autopilot had not been engaged.
The DOJ is reportedly focusing on the language Tesla uses when discussing its artificial intelligence systems. Tesla has a “Full Self-Driving” mode, but none of its technologies could justify a driver allowing the car to drive itself. Tesla has said in the past that drivers should always keep their “hands on the wheel” when using FSD, Autopilot or Enhanced Autopilot, although the language may seem contradictory.
It doesn’t help that Tesla founder and CEO Elon Musk sometimes takes to Twitter to praise the software in his cars. He never said the cars should be driven without any human interaction, but when he says things like FSD will soon be “safer than a human,” some Tesla owners may have a little too much faith in the technology. The company has already faced lawsuits from drivers over misleading claims.
In 2021, the California Department of Motor Vehicles announced that it had opened an investigation into Tesla’s marketing due to concerns that the company was actually misleading its customers. The DMV said falsely promoting the software was endangering people’s lives.
In an accident that turned out to be fatal, a 35-year-old California man bragged in videos that he could ride without hands or feet. “Best possible carpool partner – even does the boring traffic for me,” he said. Perhaps the fault lies with drivers who don’t read Tesla’s warnings, but it has been suggested that Tesla should change the terminology it uses for its systems.