Senators call for consumer watchdog probe into Tesla’s self-driving claims

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Tesla Inc updates

Top Democratic senators are calling on the Federal Trade Commission to launch an investigation into marketing practices at Tesla, days after the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration opened a probe into the car maker’s Autopilot driverless technology.

Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Edward Markey of Massachusetts, both members of the Senate commerce committee, wrote to FTC chair Lina Khan on Wednesday, calling on the agency to start a formal investigation of Tesla and its founder, Elon Musk.

In the letter, they accused the carmaker of overstating what its vehicles are capable of, thereby endangering drivers who rely on automated features such as Autopilot to navigate roads.

“Tesla and Mr Musk’s repeated overstatements of their vehicle’s capabilities — despite clear and frequent warnings — demonstrate a deeply concerning disregard for the safety of those on the road and require real accountability,” the senators wrote. “Their claims put Tesla drivers — and all of the travelling public — at risk of serious injury or death.”

The FTC, which enforces antitrust rules and promotes consumer protection, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The senators’ intervention comes just two days after the NHTSA, part of the US transportation department, said it had opened a probe into 11 crashes involving Tesla’s Autopilot driverless technology.

The collisions, which led to 17 injuries and one death, all involved vehicles that had either the Autopilot or Traffic Aware Cruise Control modes switched on, and occurred at scenes with visible driver warning markers such as cones and arrows, the agency said.

News of the NHTSA investigation sent shares in the carmaker down by more than 4 per cent on Monday. Tesla shares were up nearly 3 per cent on Wednesday morning, after the senators’ comments were published.

Musk has claimed on a number of occasions that Tesla is close to achieving full self-driving capability, though its Autopilot software is only an advanced driver-assistance system designed to handle road tasks such as maintaining speed or staying within a lane.

He has previously promised that a Tesla would be able to drive across the US without any driver intervention by 2017, and has claimed that cars using Autopilot are already 10 times less likely to crash than others.

The National Transportation Safety Board, a separate independent watchdog, has previously accused regulators of taking a “hands-off approach to oversight” of Tesla that “poses a potential risk to motorists and other road users”.

Musk has also been criticised for naming the technology Autopilot, even though it is only a so-called level two driver assistance system, far short of the full level five, in which a car can drive itself.

Musk did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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