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Tesla Under Criminal Investigation Over Claims About Self-Driving Cars, Report Says

The DOJ reportedly launched a criminal probe after more than a dozen crashes happened while Tesla's Autopilot software was engaged.

The back of a Tesla with a license plate that says "ELETREC"
James Martin / CNET

Tesla is under criminal investigation in the US over the company's claims that its electric vehicles are capable of driving themselves, according to a report Wednesday from Reuters.

The criminal probe, which was reportedly launched by the Department of Justice last year, focuses on Tesla's "Autopilot" driver assistance software after more than a dozen Tesla crashes, some fatal, occurred. The Reuters report cites three unnamed sources.

The DOJ declined to comment on the matter, and Tesla did not immediately respond to a request for comment.  

As recently as last week, Elon Musk, Tesla's CEO and potentially Twitter's new owner, said on a webcast discussing the company's third-quarter financials that "you will almost never have to touch the vehicle controls" while a Tesla is on the road, and that he believes the data Tesla is gathering will prove its FSD system is safer than humans driving themselves.

Musk said the beta version of Tesla's "Full Self-Driving" software should be available to all customers who signed up for it by the end of this year, but said it isn't quite ready yet.

The Tesla website says drivers need to always have their hands on the wheel while using Autopilot. However, according to a report from The Washington Post in June, Tesla cars using its Autopilot software had been involved in 273 crashes over the preceding year, citing data published by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Tesla is facing numerous on-going lawsuits related to its Autopilot software, including a proposed class-action lawsuit filed in San Francisco in September. Drivers who bought or leased Tesla vehicles with Autopilot, Enhanced Autopilot and FSD software since 2016 are alleging that the electric car maker is misleading the public by falsely advertising its self-driving capabilities as much more advanced than they actually are, putting drivers at risk.

Tesla came under fire in January in California, when the Department of Motor Vehicles said that Tesla "misled customers with advertising language that exaggerated the technologies' capabilities." The company was also accused in August of engaging in false advertising by saying its Autopilot and FSD software allow for autonomous vehicle control.

California prosecutors in January also filed the first vehicular manslaughter felony charges in the US against a driver who was involved in a fatal Autopilot-related collision in 2019.

In August 2021, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration announced it was formally looking into the safety of Tesla's Autopilot Level 2 driver-assistance functions, in particular crashes with parked emergency vehicles.