Federal prosecutors are investigating possible fraud charges against the company for exaggerating the abilities of its Autopilot feature, which allows the vehicle to partially drive itself. These claims may have resulted in drivers not paying attention to what was happening before an accident.
The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) started the probe last year after more than a dozen crashes, some of them fatal, reports Reuters. They involved the Autopilot system, which was engaged when the accidents occurred. The DOJ is looking into whether Tesla misled consumers, regulators, and investors by making unsubstantiated claims about Autopilot and how drivers should use it.
Tesla’s Overpromotion of a Feature May Put Motorists in Danger
Tesla’s description of its vehicles pulls it in different directions. They may lose market share if they don’t say how great their cars are and why they’re better than other electric vehicles. But their words can be used against them if they’re untrue and the vehicle’s at least partially to blame for causing accidents.
If Tesla gave drivers a false sense of security, victims of car accidents could seek compensation against Tesla and the drivers for negligence. That mistaken sense of safety could also be a criminal defense for drivers charged after accidents.
A California driver is expected to go on trial for manslaughter on November 15 because his Tesla, with Autopilot in use, crashed into another car, killing its two occupants. The defendant’s expected defense is to blame Tesla’s marketing of the system for making him not appreciate the danger the system posed.
Tesla: You Can Do Amazing Things With Our Cars But Don’t Do Them Because It’s Too Dangerous
Tesla has promoted Autopilot since 2016. That year the company’s chief executive, Elon Musk, claimed Autopilot was “probably better” than a human driver. Recently Musk claimed they will release “Full Self-Driving” software allowing car owners to travel to their destination “without you touching the wheel.”
A company video states words that could be used against it in court: “The person in the driver’s seat is only there for legal reasons. He is not doing anything. The car is driving itself.” This tells drivers they need not pay attention.
At the same time, Tesla explicitly warns drivers to put their hands on the wheel and control their vehicles while using Autopilot. It helps with steering, braking, speed, and lane changes, but it doesn’t “make the vehicle autonomous,” according to Tesla’s website.
In a 2020 interview, Musk stated that customers’ misuse of Autopilot is causing accidents. This is odd to say when the company’s promoting the claim drivers need not do anything because Teslas can drive themselves. The company can’t promote dangerous actions by drivers, then blame them when they do as they’re told.
Tesla’s doublespeak could help plaintiffs’ attorneys show the company’s mixed messages may lull a driver into a false sense of security. If Tesla warns drivers to stay in control while also saying that’s unnecessary, their warnings may be seen as inadequate, resulting in liability for making, distributing, and selling an unsafe product.
What’s the Next Step?
If you or a loved one are injured in a vehicle crash and looking for an experienced lawyer, call The Fleck Firm for a free consultation at (270) 446-7000. Our team is dedicated and compassionate when fighting for our clients.
We can discuss the accident, your injuries, the law, and how it may apply in your case. You will be fully informed about your situation and the possible hurdles you may face. Insurance companies have lawyers. You should have one too.