The US Department of Justice has put Tesla under criminal investigation over claims that the company’s electric vehicles can drive themselves, joining several other legal challenges over the company’s claims about its self-driving technology(autopilot software), Reuters reported citing three people familiar with the matter.
The DOJ reportedly opened its previously undisclosed probe last year after Tesla’s driver assistance system known as Autopilot was involved in more than a dozen crashes, some of which were fatal, that occurred while the software was activated.
As the sources said, they could ultimately pursue criminal charges, seek civil sanctions, or close the investigation without taking any action.
The prosecutors in Washington and San Francisco involved in the latest investigation are probing whether Tesla consumers, investors, and regulators were misled by the unsupported claims the company made about its driver assistance technology’s capabilities.
Both the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) and a Tesla owner filed a complaint against Tesla in July and in September, respectively, accusing the company of making misleading claims about its autopilot technology.
The Tesla owner’s class action lawsuit points out that he even spent an extra $5,000 on a higher level of autopilot technology, alleging that Tesla falsely advertised the technology and misled customers.
However, as the company notes on its website, the advanced driver assistance system, as Tesla describes its autopilot software, has three levels – Autopilot, Enhanced Autopilot, and Full Self-Driving Capability- pointing out that the features currently do not make the vehicle autonomous.
The website has explicitly warned drivers that all three levels are intended for use with a fully attentive driver, who has their hands on the wheel and is prepared to take over at any moment, explaining that the Tesla technology is designed to only assist with steering, braking, speed, and lane changes.
Such warnings could complicate any case the DOJ might wish to bring though the California DMV argues in its lawsuit that the company’s disclaimer still “contradicts” its claims.