March 20, 2023

The automaker revealed that federal officials have asked Tesla for documents related to the company’s self-driving software, which could hinder a technology that Chief Executive Elon Musk sees as a key competitive advantage.

Tesla said in a statement annual report The filing, dated Monday and filed with the SEC, said it had received a request from the Justice Department for “documents related to Tesla’s Autopilot and FSD functionality.”

Launched in 2015, Autopilot is a collection of technologies designed to drive, brake and accelerate vehicles on their own.

Tesla has also been testing a technology called Full Self-Driving (FSD) with a small number of car owners for nearly two years. The system is designed to extend self-driving technology beyond highways to city streets. Both of these techniques require the strict supervision of a human driver.

Those features have prompted lawsuits from car owners who say it falls short of Mr. Musk’s promises. Others are working on the security of these technologies.

The main U.S. auto safety regulator, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, is investigating Autopilot after finding 35 crashes involving the system, nine of which resulted in 14 deaths. Its survey covers 830,000 vehicles sold in the United States and is looking at fully autonomous driving and Autopilot.

In a document reporting the Justice Department request, Tesla declared that “to the best of our knowledge, no government agency has concluded any wrongdoing in any ongoing investigation.” It added, “If the government decides to take Enforcement action” that could have a significant financial impact on the company.

Tesla did not provide further details and did not respond to a request for comment on Tuesday. The Justice Department declined to comment.

Musk told investors last week that the FSD technology gives Tesla a “huge upside advantage” by generating revenue from people who already own cars. Tesla charges owners $199 a month to upgrade the basic Autopilot software to full self-driving.

In documents such as its owner’s manual, Tesla has long said that drivers must keep their hands on the wheel, eyes on the road, and be ready to take over at any time. In the current system, the car disengages Autopilot if the driver doesn’t keep their hands on the wheel all the time.

Still, Mr. Musk has often described the technology as if it could fully drive the car or was moving towards autonomous operation. The technology’s name also implies that it can operate without supervision.

In 2016, he said that Tesla vehicles leave the factory with all the hardware needed to enable self-driving — a statement that surprised and worried some Tesla employees who worked on the project. Since then, he has repeatedly said that autonomy is only a year or two away.

In two July complaints, the California Department of Motor Vehicles accused Tesla of misleading customers by advertising that vehicles equipped with Autopilot and Full Self-Driving technology were self-driving.

If the two complaints filed with the state’s Office of Administrative Hearings are successful, Tesla’s license to manufacture and sell vehicles in California, by far the country’s largest electric vehicle market, could be suspended or revoked.

In 2019, a German court ruled that Tesla could not use the term “Autopilot” on its website and other marketing materials in the country, but that ruling was overturned this year. A Tesla owner in the U.S. sued the company last year for fraud and breach of contract because his car doesn’t actually drive itself.

Tesla regularly publishes a “safety report” showing that accidents occur less frequently when using Autopilot. But the researchers show that those numbers are misleading. Independent experts said it was difficult to determine the safety of the technology.

In September, several Tesla owners filed a lawsuit in federal court accusing the company of fraud, violations of consumer protection laws and false advertising. The suit alleges that Tesla “made misleading and deceptive statements about the company’s advanced driver assistance systems related to Autopilot.”

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