Tesla Inc. is under criminal investigation over claims that the company's electric vehicles can drive themselves. The U.S. Department of Justice launched the previously undisclosed probe last year after more than a dozen crashes, some of them fatal, involving Tesla’s driver assistance system Autopilot, which was activated during the accidents, Reuters reports. As early as 2016, Tesla’s marketing materials have touted Autopilot’s capabilities. On a conference call that year, Elon Musk, the automaker’s chief executive, described it as “probably better” than a human driver. Last week, Musk said on another call Tesla soon would release an upgraded version of “Full Self-Driving” software allowing customers to travel “to your work, your friend’s house, to the grocery store without you touching the wheel.”
A video on the company’s website says: “The person in the driver’s seat is only there for legal reasons. He is not doing anything. The car is driving itself.” However, the company also has explicitly warned drivers that they must keep their hands on the wheel and maintain control of their vehicles while using Autopilot. The Tesla technology is designed to assist with steering, braking, speed and lane changes but its features “do not make the vehicle autonomous,” the company says. Such warnings could complicate any case the Justice Department might wish to bring. Federal and California safety regulators are already scrutinizing whether claims about Autopilot's capabilities and the system's design imbue customers with a false sense of security, inducing them to treat Teslas as truly driverless cars and become complacent behind the wheel with potentially deadly consequences. The Justice Department investigation potentially represents a more serious level of scrutiny because of the possibility of criminal charges against the company or individual executives.