Reports: Tesla will face DOJ, SEC scrutiny over self-driving claims

Multiple arms of the federal government are reportedly preparing to scrutinize Tesla—and perhaps its CEO, Elon Musk—over various statements made about its driver-assistance system, building from its Autopilot system and relating to its extra-cost Full Self-Driving functionality.

On Wednesday Reuters reported that Tesla faces a criminal probe over self-driving claims. Then Thursday afternoon the Wall Street Journal added another potentially complex layer: that Tesla is also the subject of a civil investigation from the Securities and Exchange Commission, citing people familiar with the matter. 

As the WSJ pointed out, the SEC has the authority to enforce investor protection laws on a civil basis. As for the alleged DOJ probe, it reportedly involves prosecutors in Washington and San Francisco.

Meanwhile, an investigation of Tesla’s driver-assistance systems continues through official vehicle-safety channels. In June, the federal government announced it would upgrade its safety probe of 830,000 Tesla vehicles (a number that has grown since) to an Engineering Analysis—a step closer to a recall—after a growing list of incidents in which Teslas struck emergency response vehicles while their driver-assistance mode was engaged. 

2021 Tesla Model 3

That investigation spans 2014-2022 Tesla Model Y, Model 3, Model S, and Model X vehicles, all equipped with the Autopilot system—including Navigate on Autopilot—in which the driver is legally responsible for driving the vehicle and needs to provide constant supervision.

Tesla continues to maintain that driving with its systems engaged is safer, and in its Q4 2021 update on Autopilot safety—still the most recent—it reported one crash per 4.31 million miles of Autopilot driving versus one per 1.59 million miles for those who weren’t using the system. 

Neither the Justice Department nor the SEC have responded to these reports. Since such allegations aren’t yet written out in publicly accessible filings, it’s unclear whether they might overlap with the substance beyond a complaint lodged recently by the California Department of Motor Vehicles against Tesla.

Tesla hiked the price of Full Self-Driving to $15,000 in September and broadened a beta test that greatly expands the conditions under which the system can be used. Musk has at various times in the past suggested that the system is a direct on-ramp to robotaxi functionality that will boost the value of its vehicles.

Tesla Model 3 dashboard in Autopilot testing with IIHS [CREDIT: IIHS]

This wouldn’t be the first time Musk is investigated by the SEC. In 2018 it opened an investigation into statements made—via Twitter—in which Musk appeared to suggest that the company was considering a large-scale stock buyback, to take the company private at $420 a share. That was settled with a $40 million payment—split between company and CEO—with Musk losing his chairman of the board position for three years.

Later that year, spurred by investors who said they were misled, the SEC looked into Tesla’s production claims regarding the ramp-up of Model 3. In April 2019, as part of an agreement with the SEC, Musk was no longer allowed to tweet about Tesla’s finances or sales without express preapproval from the company’s securities lawyer.

Musk completed the purchase of Twitter on Thursday, and so the timing of these two reports—both yet unverified—is a coincidence that bears noting.

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