Tesla Model X in grayTesla is under a criminal investigation over allegations that its cars can drive themselves, according to a bombshell report. Reuters news service attributes the claim to “three people familiar with the matter.”

“The US Department of Justice launched the previously undisclosed investigation last year after more than a dozen incidents, some of which were fatal,” the report says. The company’s automated driver assistance system has reportedly been triggered during accidents.

One of the three sources told Reuters that this investigation “competes with two other Department of Justice investigations related to Tesla.”

So-called “self-driving” cars are a controversial and confusing topic. Some perspective may help in understanding the news.

There are no self-driving cars

First things first, there are no self-driving cars for sale in the United States.

Self-driving cars are in the news. But, outside of a few limited areas, they haven’t shared the routes with you yet.

Automakers and tech companies test it under limited conditions, but few on public roads. Notably, GM now operates fewer than 100 driverless taxis under the Cruise brand name in downtown San Francisco during daylight hours only. But you can’t buy a car that drives itself.

What about you Can Today’s purchase, in a few cars, is a system designed to take on some of the driver’s workload under limited conditions.

Automakers use a five-tier framework from SAE International, a global association of engineers and related technical experts in the aerospace, automotive and commercial vehicle industries, to describe autonomous driving systems.

Related Topics: Self-Driving Cars – Everything You Need to Know

At level 1, the car can intervene briefly to assist the driver while keeping his hands on the steering wheel. Path focus systems that help you stay in the center of your path, for example, are a level one technology.

In level 2, cars have more than one level 1 system, and they can operate simultaneously. Many cars reward it with adaptive cruise control that can maintain a set distance from the vehicle in front of you with the lane centering system.

At level 2, the driver must remain alert and ready to take on the task in a split second at all times.

The most advanced systems for sale today, including Tesla, are Tier 2 systems.

The three Tesla systems

Today, Tesla sells three automation systems. The company’s lawyers told the regulators that all three were Level 2 systems.

Autopilot It is standard equipment on every Tesla vehicle. Intelligent cruise control is used to match the vehicle to surrounding traffic speed and a lane centering function to help keep the vehicle in the center of its lane.

Enhanced Autopilot It is a $6000 option on all Tesla cars. It has the same features as Autopilot but adds the ability to navigate highways on and off ramps without driver intervention, navigate highway intersections, and suggest lane changes. It also includes a self-parking system and a “call” function, allowing owners to call the car from a parking lot.

fully self-driving It is now a $15,000 option. Tesla says it will read and react to traffic lights, stop signals and move around certain turns with the “active supervision” of the driver. Tesla also says fully autonomous driving is in “beta testing” and requires owners to sign a complex waiver to participate in.

Studies show that people trust these systems a lot

There is evidence that people are over-relying on these driver assistance systems. A recent study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety recently found that 42% of Tesla Autopilot users and 54% of GM’s Super Cruise users “say they feel comfortable treating their cars as fully self-driving.”

Users reported eating and texting behind the wheel. All current driver assistance systems have methods that monitor and warn the driver to pay attention to the road when it does not appear to be. Forty percent of users in the IIHS study reported that their systems had them shut down at some point due to their frequent lack of interest in the road.

Safety advocates: names are a problem

You may have noticed that the actual system functionality is less impressive than the sound of the names.

Names are a problem, according to safety advocates.

A coalition of car safety groups recently met to ask the auto industry to agree on standard names for driver assistance systems.

They say autopilot doesn’t drive the car for you. Full self-driving is not.

Ads may conflict with legal provisions

The names may be the core of the Justice Department’s investigation.

The California Department of Motor Vehicles recently asked the court to intervene over what it claims is a false advertisement for Tesla.

Reuters reports, “As early as 2016, Tesla’s marketing materials touted the autopilot capabilities. On a conference call that year, Silicon Valley Automotive CEO Elon Musk described the car as “probably better” than a human driver.”

A video still available on the company’s website this morning says: “The person in the driver’s seat is only there for legal reasons. He’s not doing anything. The car drives itself.”

The same company that tells regulators its cars aren’t self-driving sometimes tells car shoppers that they are. Sources told Reuters that federal agents are “examining whether Tesla has misled consumers, investors and regulators by making unsupported claims about its driver assistance technology capabilities, the sources said.”

Tesla is the poster child

Tesla isn’t the only automaker to market a system like Autopilot. GM has a Super Cruise. Ford has BlueCruise. Nissan has a Pro Pilot360. Subaru has a vision system.

Each has its own quirks – many of them only work on certain predefined methods.

But they are all Tier 2 systems like Autopilot.

However, Tesla became the focal point of public discussions about partial automation. Its ad claims are more aggressive than most. They have sold more cars with Level 2 systems than any other cars. And his legion of fans is more vocal.

Federal law requires auto manufacturers to report accidents that may have involved driver assistance systems to the government. As of June, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said it had received 392 reports. Almost seventy percent of them – 273 accidents – were involved in Tesla systems.

Honda reports 90. No other automaker has had more than 10.

This can go anywhere

Reuters reports, “The Justice Department’s investigation likely represents a more serious level of scrutiny due to the potential for criminal charges to be brought against the company or individual executives.”

However, investigators can also close a case without charging anyone.

“The investigators still have a lot of work to do, and there is no imminent decision on the charges,” one of the sources told the news agency.

Barbara McCaudy, the former US attorney who sued the automakers, told Reuters investigators will need to prove that Tesla executives “intentionally” mislead the public. Tesla could argue that the disclaimer on its website proves that’s not the case.

This may be a high barrier to crossing. It may also explain why, according to Reuters, the Justice Department’s investigation is limited to autopilot rather than fully autonomous driving. Drivers must sign a waiver to engage in fully autonomous driving, but not autopilot.

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