It seems the richest man in the world is not without problems.
Reuters reports that Tesla is currently facing a previously undisclosed criminal probe from the Justice Department over its advanced driver assistance system, Autopilot. The probe, which has been ongoing since last year and was kicked off not long after several deadly crashes involving the feature, is seeking to investigate whether Tesla misled the public and investors about the reliability of its autonomous technology.
Tesla beta launched its “Full Self Driving” system back in 2020 and currently has over 100,000 active enrollees from the broader Tesla owner pool, TechCrunch reports. While the feature is popular, cars using the driver-assisted system have suffered hundreds of crashes over the past several years—including a number that proved fatal.
Despite the use of the words “self-driving,” Tesla’s feature doesn’t actually make the car fully autonomous—it requires a driver to keep their hands on the wheel, while the system helps out with turns, braking, speed adjustments and lane changes. This is something that the company has been explicit about, though—as it would seem from the criminal probe—maybe not explicit enough.
Not much is known about the criminal investigation or whether charges will be brought against individual executives or the company. However, Reuters points out that Tesla has repeatedly played up the reliability of its technology—including in its marketing materials and at press events. Tesla CEO Elon Musk recently claimed that soon the company would release upgraded software to make the system so adept at navigating that people would be able to drive around without “touching the wheel.”
A report published this summer by the US National Highway Traffic Safety Association showed that, of all the accidents involving self-driving vehicles, otherwise known as advanced driver assist systems (ADAS), Teslas using Autopilot represented nearly 70 percent of them—with some 270 crashes. Still, at the time, analysts cautioned against reading too much into the data bereft of proper context: “I would advise caution before attempting to draw conclusions based only on the data that we’re releasing. In fact, the data alone may raise more questions than they answer,” said NHTSA administrator Dr Steven Cliff, at the time of the report’s release.
Tesla is already facing investigations over its driver-assisted cars from the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the state of California, for similar reasons. The company got rid of its media relations office in 2020, so Gizmodo could not reach out to the company to ask for comment about the most recent investigation.