Tesla’s Self-Driving Technology Comes Under Justice Dept. Scrutiny
Federal officials have asked Tesla for documents related to the company’s self-driving software, the carmaker has disclosed, a potential setback for technology that Elon Musk, the chief executive, has identified as a critical competitive advantage.
Tesla said in an annual report dated Monday and filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission that it had received requests from the Justice Department “for documents related to Tesla’s Autopilot and F.S.D. features.”
Autopilot, introduced in 2015, is a collection of technologies designed to steer, brake and accelerate vehicles on its own.
For nearly two years, Tesla has also been testing a technology it calls Full Self-Driving, or F.S.D., with a limited number of car owners. This system seeks to extend Autopilot technology beyond highways and onto city streets. Both technologies require strict oversight by a human driver.
The features have prompted lawsuits from owners who say it does not live up to Mr. Musk’s promises. And others are investigating the safety of the technologies.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the primary auto safety regulator in the United States, is investigating Autopilot after becoming aware of 35 crashes involving the system, including nine that resulted in 14 deaths. Its investigation covers 830,000 vehicles sold in the United States and is looking at Full Self-Driving as well as Autopilot.
In its filing reporting the Justice Department requests, Tesla declared, “To our knowledge no government agency in any ongoing investigation has concluded that any wrongdoing occurred.” It added that “should the government decide to pursue an enforcement action” it could have a significant impact on company finances.
Tesla provided no further details and did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday. The Justice Department declined to comment.
Speaking to investors last week, Mr. Musk said the F.S.D. technology gave Tesla “a tremendous upside advantage” by generating revenue from people who already own a car. Tesla charges $199 a month for owners to upgrade basic Autopilot software to Full Self-Driving.
In its owner’s manual and other documents, Tesla has long said that drivers must keep their hands on the wheel and their eyes on the road, ready to take control of the car at any time. With the current system, cars will disengage Autopilot if drivers do not consistently keep a 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 without oversight.
In 2016, he said Tesla vehicles were leaving the factory with all the hardware they would need to achieve autonomy — a statement that surprised and concerned some Tesla employees who were working on the project. Since then, he has repeatedly said autonomy was just 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 autonomous.
If the two complaints, which were filed with the state’s Office of Administrative Hearings, succeed, Tesla’s licenses to make and sell vehicles in California — by far the country’s biggest market for electric vehicles — could be suspended or revoked.
In 2019, a German court ruled that Tesla could not use the term “Autopilot” on its website and in other marketing materials in the country, but the ruling was overturned this year. A Tesla owner in the United States sued the company last year for fraud and breach of contract because its cars could not actually drive themselves.
Tesla publishes a regular “safety report” showing that accidents are less frequent when Autopilot is in use. But the numbers are misleading, researchers have shown. Independent experts have said it is hard to determine how safe the technology is.
In September, several Tesla owners filed a lawsuit in federal court accusing the company of fraud, violating consumer protection laws and of false advertising. The suit asserted that Tesla had made “misleading and deceptive statements regarding the company’s advanced driver assistance systems in connection with claims about self-driving.”