By David Shepardson
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Two Democratic U.S. senators said they are “encouraged” by a reported criminal probe by the Justice Department into Tesla Inc over claims its electric vehicles can drive themselves.
Reuters first reported the investigation on Wednesday, citing sources.
Senators Richard Blumenthal and Ed Markey in a joint statement said they had “long sounded the alarm about Tesla’s misleading marketing practices, which overstate the real capabilities of its vehicles and put drivers and the public at grave risk.”
The senators added that they would “continue pressing for oversight of (CEO) Elon Musk and Tesla to avert driver confusion and prevent deadly crashes — and for accountability if any misconduct is uncovered.”
Reuters reported the Justice Department launched the previously undisclosed probe last year following more than a dozen crashes, some of them fatal, involving Tesla’s driver assistance system Autopilot, which was activated during the accidents, citing sources.
As part of the latest probe, Justice Department prosecutors in Washington and San Francisco are examining whether Tesla misled consumers, investors and regulators by making unsupported claims about its driver assistance technology’s capabilities, the sources said.
Markey and Blumenthal are pressing regulators to more closely investigate Autopilot.
The senators said in February “complaints and investigations paint a troubling picture: Tesla repeatedly releases software without fully considering its risks and implications, creating grave dangers for all on the roads.”
In June, NHTSA said it was upgrading its defect probe into 830,000 Tesla vehicles with Autopilot, a required step before it could seek a recall.
The probe centers on the performance of Autopilot after more than a dozen crashes in which Tesla vehicles struck stopped emergency vehicles.
The Tesla technology is designed to assist with steering, braking, speed and lane changes but its features “do not make the vehicle autonomous,” the company says on its website.
Tesla, which has disbanded its media relations department, did not respond Thursday.
(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Mark Porter and Marguerita Choy)