Tesla confirmed in a public filing released today that the US Department of Justice has requested documents concerning the company’s controversial driver-assist software systems which Tesla calls Autopilot and “Full Self-Driving.”
Tesla said it “has received requests from the DOJ for documents related to Tesla’s Autopilot and FSD features.”
Autopilot is a suite of driver-assist features that’s best known for its automated steering that may keep a car within a lane on roads. Some drivers say it decreases their fatigue on long roadtrips. “Full Self-Driving” steers the vehicle on city streets, but also may stop for traffic signals and make turns to reach a destination. Drivers have been impressed with its abilities but alarmed by its flaws.
Tesla said that it’s not aware of any ongoing government investigation that has concluded any wrongdoing occurred.
The company’s driver-assist software is already being investigated by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, raising speculation that the software could be recalled. NHTSA announced last summer that it was escalating its Tesla probe to an “engineering analysis,” a step toward seeking a recall.
NHTSA first investigated Tesla’s driver-assist technology after reports that Autopilot-engaged vehicles were crashing into emergency vehicles stopped at the scene of earlier crashes.
Autopilot has long been controversial. The National Transportation Safety Board previously found that the technology was partially to blame in a fatal crash.
Tesla claims that Autopilot is safer than ordinary driving, but autonomous vehicle experts say the data chosen by Tesla to support its safety claims compares apples and oranges, and isn’t the best measure of the safety of the systems.
Tesla’s “Full Self-Driving” system is intended to someday work on city streets, but despite its wide rollout it is still officially in a developmental “beta” program. No car for sale is yet able to drive itself.
Reuters reported in October that Tesla was facing a Department of Justice probe over claims that the vehicles can drive themselves.
The investigation raises the stakes for Tesla and its claim of self-driving technology. The Justice Department looks into whether individuals or companies are violating laws, most commonly as part of a criminal investigation. Agencies such as the Consumer Product Safety Commission and NHTSA typically can only request — not demand — that companies order a recall when problems arise.
Tesla’s use of the term “self-driving” has also been fraught with controversy.
Waymo, the self-driving subsidiary of Google’s parent company, stopped using the term “self-driving” in January 2021 because it said the phrase was being used inaccurately, giving the public a false impression of what driver-assist systems are capable of.
“Precision in language matters and could save lives,” Waymo said at the time.
Tesla’s word choice has long angered people who have worked to add autonomous driving capabilities to vehicles.
Tesla has long defended itself in its fine print and in-car warnings that drivers must remain in control of their vehicles as it may do the wrong thing at the worst time. But there’s been plenty of consumer confusion. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has found that drivers put too much trust in features like Autopilot, which may lead to dangerous situations.
IIHS found that 42% of Tesla Autopilot users were comfortable letting the system drive the vehicle without them watching what was happening on the road.