Tesla and its CEO Elon Musk have been hit by a class-action lawsuit filed in federal court claiming they “deceptively and misleadingly” overstated the capabilities of the automaker’s Autopilot and Full Self-Driving vehicle technologies, leading customers to believe the vehicles were far more capable than is actually the case.
Those features — which cost anywhere from $5,000 to $15,000 — have generated strong demand among Tesla customers. But they’ve also created concerns among safety and consumer advocates, as well as regulators. The Tesla tech has triggered a number of ongoing probes by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and a separate investigation by California regulators who accused the automaker of false advertising — something that could see the carmaker barred from selling its products in the Golden State.
In the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, plaintiff Briggs Matsko alleges Tesla and Musk intentionally “deceived and misled consumers regarding the current abilities of its (Autopilot and FSD) technology and by representing that it was perpetually on the cusp of perfecting that technology and finally fulfilling its promise of producing a fully self-driving car.”
Decade of questionable claims
The lawsuit specifically refers to statements and tweets by Musk hyping the two systems. In 2019, for example, the CEO said 1 million Tesla vehicles would soon be capable of operating as robotaxis that owners could then use to make money.
“A year from now, we’ll have over a million cars with full self-driving, software … everything,” Musk declared.
Musk has been making similar claims for nearly a decade.
Always a year away
A transcript of a January 2022 earnings call, meanwhile, saw Musk again promising that true autonomous capabilities were within a year to 18 months away from production:
“Full Self-Driving. So, over time, we think Full Self-Driving will become the most important source of profitability for Tesla. It’s — actually, if you run the numbers on robotaxis, it’s kind of nutty — it’s nutty good from a financial standpoint. And I think we are completely confident at this point that it will be achieved. And my personal guess is that we’ll achieve Full Self-Driving this year, yes, with data safety level significantly greater than present.”
In the new class action lawsuit, Matsko and his attorneys counter, “Contrary to Tesla’s repeated promises that it would have a fully self-driving car within months or a year, Tesla has never been remotely close to achieving that goal.”
In the filing with federal court, Matsko said he is seeking “injunctive relief prohibiting Tesla from continuing its deceptive and misleading marketing of its ADAS technology, restitution of the money Plaintiff and Class members paid for technology that Tesla promised but never delivered, and all available damages including punitive damages to punish Tesla for years of using deceptive and misleading marketing to eventually establish itself as a dominant player in the electric vehicle market.”
This is by no means the first time Tesla has come under fire for its claims about the capabilities of Autopilot and the newer Full Self-Driving system, technologies that cost $5,000 and up to $15,000 respectively, now that the automaker has raised the price of FSD each year for the last four years.
California could ban Tesla
On July 28, California’s Department of Motor Vehicles filed a complaint declaring that Tesla “made or disseminated statements that are untrue or misleading, and not based on facts” concerning the capabilities of the two technologies. Referencing ads for Autopilot and Full Self-Driving, the DMV said they “could not at the time of those advertisements, and cannot now, operate as autonomous vehicles.”
If the agency rules against Tesla it could bar Tesla from selling its vehicles in California, the largest market for battery-electric vehicles in the U.S.
According to widely followed industry standards, the term “Full Self-Driving,” applies to vehicles capable of achieving Levels 4 or 5 autonomy. That means the ability to operate without a human driver engaged with vehicle operations.
In reality, both Tesla technologies require drivers to retain hands on the steering wheel at all times. That is not even up to the capabilities of some competing systems, such as General Motors’ Super Cruise — which allows hands-free use on more than 200,000 miles — jumping to 400,000 for the 2023 model year — of North American roadways, as long as the driver maintains focus on the road and is ready to quickly retake control.
Problems with Tesla tech — including dozens of crashes, some fatal — have also triggered dozens of ongoing probes by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Since 2016, the agency has opened 38 separate investigations, though some have now been closed. A total of 19 deaths have been linked to Tesla’s Autopilot and FSD systems.
Ralph Nader weighs in
Longtime safety and consumer advocate — and former presidential candidate — Ralph Nader weighed last month, calling the release of the FSD system “dangerous” and “irresponsible.”
“I am calling on federal regulators to act immediately to prevent the growing deaths and injuries from Tesla manslaughtering crashes with this technology,” the 88-year-old Nader said in a statement released through the Center for Automotive Safety. “NHTSA,” he added, “must use its safety recall authority to order that the FSD technology be removed in every Tesla.”
Tesla’s safety-related problems are compounded by yet another recent class-action lawsuit, this one focusing on “phantom braking.” The plaintiffs in that lawsuit focus on widespread claims that Tesla’s adaptive cruise control system is prone to unexpectedly apply the brakes when there is no reason to do so.
Tesla, which disbanded its public relations department, did not respond to TheDetroitBureau.com’s requests for comment on the lawsuit for this story.