DETROIT (AP) – Federal prosecutors have expanded their investigation into Tesla beyond the electric vehicle maker Partially automated driving systemAnd they issued subpoenas for information rather than simply requesting it, the company disclosed Monday.
In a quarterly report filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Tesla said the Justice Department is looking into “individual benefits, related parties, vehicle range and personnel decisions,” without elaborating.
Additional investigative items and subpoenas suggest that prosecutors have broadened their investigation and that they may find it necessary to compel Tesla to release information, legal experts said. The filing indicates that prosecutors are investigating Tesla CEO Elon Musk and whether the company has been candid in describing the features of its vehicles, they said.
In January, Tesla revealed that the Department of Justice had requested documents related to its Autopilot and “fully self-driving” features. Both properties are categorized As a driver-assistance systemAnd the company says on its website that the vehicles can’t drive themselves.
Now, the company is releasing an investigation that is “much broader than just looking at Autopilot and FSD features,” said Eric Gordon, a University of Michigan business and law professor. “DOJ often starts with a formal written request and escalates to an administrative subpoena if it feels it is not getting full cooperation,” he said.
Specifying additional items that prosecutors are looking at indicates that Tesla’s lawyers consider them serious enough to change the company’s public disclosures, Gordon said.
Tesla did not respond to a request for comment, but the Austin, Texas-based company said in its SEC filing that to its knowledge, no government agency has concluded that there was wrongdoing in any ongoing investigation. The Justice Department declined to comment.
For the first time, Tesla said in its filing that the investigations could damage the company’s brand. “If the government decides to take an enforcement action, our business, results of operations, prospects, cash flows, financial position or brand are likely to have a material adverse effect,” the filing said.
Jacob Fraenkel, a former SEC enforcement attorney and former federal prosecutor, specifically suggested a possible connection to Musk, citing “personal benefits and related parties.” Disclosing the range of vehicles that are under scrutiny “also reflects concerns about the company’s presentation of the vehicle’s features,” said Frenkel, now a partner at Dickinson Wright in Washington.
Frenkel said it’s clear Tesla only considered the subpoena a request for information on prior quarterly disclosures. “Now the Autopilot and FSD features will appear subject to extensive investigative subpoenas,” he said.
It’s not possible to tell from the filing how far along the Justice Department is in its investigation or whether it will lead to any criminal charges, Frenkel said.
“Adding the notion of a material adverse effect on a company’s brand suggests a heightened concern for the potential consequences that could flow from a federal civil or criminal action,” Frenkel said. “It is reasonable to interpret these revelations as a suggestion of an extended continued and potentially even more damaging investigation.”
Tesla’s “full self-driving” hardware went on sale in late 2015, and Musk has used the name since the company collected data to teach it how to drive. The company recently dropped the “fully self-driving” price from $3,000 to $12,000.
In 2019, Musk promised a fleet of autonomous robotaxis by 2020, and he said as early as 2022 that the cars would be autonomous that year. In April, Kasturi System Dr To be ready in 2023.
Starting in 2021, Tesla is beta-testing “fully self-driving” using volunteer owners. On Tesla’s third-quarter earnings conference call last week, Musk did not directly answer a question about the timeframe for Tesla’s vehicles to drive themselves and be deployed as robotaxis. “I guess I’m very excited about our progress with autonomy,” he said, adding that the system allows him to drive around Austin without interference.
But Tesla’s partially automated driving system has been under investigation by the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration since June 2016 when a The driver was killed using autopilot After his Tesla was run over by a tractor-trailer while crossing its path in Florida. A separate investigation into Teslas that were using Autopilot when they crashed into emergency vehicles began in August 2021. At least 14 Teslas have crashed into emergency vehicles while using the Autopilot system
Florida crash, including NHTSA sent investigators 35 Tesla crashes in which automated systems are suspected to be in use. At least 17 people died. The agency is also investigating allegations that Teslas may brake suddenly for no reason.
Auto safety advocates and government investigators have long criticized Tesla’s driver monitoring system as inadequate. Three years ago the National Transportation Safety Board listed poor monitoring as a contributing factor in a fatal 2018 Tesla crash in California. The board recommended a better system, but said Tesla had not responded.