Tesla’s self-driving tech comes under Justice Department scrutiny

Federal officials have asked Tesla for documents related to the company’s self-driving software, the automaker has revealed, a potential setback for the technology that chief executive Elon Musk has identified as a key competitive advantage.

Tesla said in an annual report dated Monday and filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission that it has received requests from the Justice Department “for documents related to Tesla’s Autopilot and FSD features.”

Autopilot, introduced in 2015, is a set of technologies designed to steer, brake and accelerate vehicles on their own.

For nearly two years, Tesla has also been testing a technology it calls Full Self-Driving, or FSD, with a limited number of car owners. This system aims to extend Autopilot technology beyond highways and onto city streets. Both technologies require strict supervision by a human driver.

The features have prompted lawsuits from owners who say it fails to deliver on Mr Musk’s promises. And others are studying technology security.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the main auto safety regulator in the United States, is investigating Autopilot after learning of 35 crashes involving the system, including nine that resulted in the deaths of 14 people. Its survey covers 830,000 vehicles sold in the United States and covers fully autonomous driving as well as Autopilot.

In its filing of the Justice Department requests, Tesla said, “To our knowledge, no government agency in any ongoing investigation has concluded that wrongdoing occurred.” He added that “if the government decides to pursue enforcement action”, it could have a significant impact on the company’s finances.

Tesla provided no further details and did not respond to a request for comment on Tuesday. The Justice Department declined to comment.

Speaking to investors last week, Musk said FSD technology was giving Tesla “a huge upside advantage” by generating revenue from people who already own a car. Tesla charges owners $199 a month to upgrade basic Autopilot software to full self-driving.

In its owner’s manual and other documents, Tesla has long said that drivers should keep their hands on the wheel and their eyes on the road, ready to take control of the car at all times. With the current system, cars will turn off autopilot if drivers don’t consistently keep one hand on the wheel.

Nonetheless, Mr. Musk has often described the technology as if it could fully drive cars or was on its way to operating autonomously. The name of the technology also implies that it can operate unattended.

In 2016, he said Tesla vehicles leave the factory with all the hardware they would need to achieve autonomy — a statement that surprised and concerned some Tesla employees working on the project. Since then, he has repeatedly said that the autonomy was only one or two years away.

In two complaints in July, the California Department of Motor Vehicles accused Tesla of misleading customers by claiming in advertisements that vehicles equipped with its Autopilot and Full Self-Driving technologies were self-driving.

If both complaints, which have been filed with the state’s Office of Administrative Hearings, are successful, Tesla’s licenses to manufacture and sell vehicles in California — by far the nation’s largest electric vehicle market — could be suspended. or revoked.

In 2019, a German court ruled that Tesla could not use the term “autopilot” on its website and other marketing materials in the country, but the ruling was overturned last year. A Tesla owner in the United States sued the company last year for fraud and breach of contract because his cars couldn’t drive themselves.

Tesla releases a regular “safety report” showing that crashes are less common when Autopilot is in use. But the numbers are misleading, researchers have shown. Independent experts said it was difficult to determine how safe the technology was.

In September, several Tesla owners filed a lawsuit in federal court accusing the company of fraud, violation of consumer protection laws and false advertising. The lawsuit claimed that Tesla made “misleading and deceptive statements regarding the company’s advanced driver assistance systems in connection with allegations regarding self-driving.”


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