Tesla Responds to Autopilot Allegations, Invokes First Amendment Rights

After more than a year, Tesla has issued a response to allegations made by the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), contending that the company misrepresented the capabilities of its Autopilot feature. In a document filed with California’s Office of Administrative Hearings, lawyers representing Tesla, led by CEO Elon Musk, assert that the DMV’s case is constitutionally flawed and should be dismissed.

First Amendment Defense

Tesla’s legal team did not directly challenge the allegations regarding Autopilot’s autonomy but instead argued that the case is “facially invalid under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.” They contend that the statutes and regulations applied to Tesla are unconstitutional because they restrict the company’s right to express truthful and non-misleading information about its vehicles and features.

The reference to “truthful and non-misleading speech” is not explicitly clarified in Tesla’s response, prompting further inquiry into the company’s interpretation of Autopilot’s capabilities. At present, Tesla has not provided additional comments on this matter.

Ongoing Regulatory Investigations

Several regulatory bodies in the United States have initiated investigations into the claims surrounding Autopilot’s capabilities. The US Department of Justice subpoenaed Tesla in October, seeking additional information on Autopilot. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is also examining whether Tesla’s marketing of Autopilot has contributed to drivers placing excessive trust in the system, potentially heightening safety risks.

Challenges to DMV’s Case

In addition to its First Amendment defense, Tesla raised several other arguments against the DMV’s case. The company contends that the DMV’s actions violate its rights to a jury trial under the 7th Amendment of the US Constitution and Article I, Section 16 of California’s Constitution. Tesla asserts that a panel should hear the case of citizens rather than an administrative law judge.

Moreover, Tesla claims that the DMV has no grounds to prosecute the company for false advertising, as it was aware of Tesla’s use of the Autopilot and Full Self-Driving Capability brand names since their introduction in 2014 and 2016, respectively. The company argues that the DMV did not take action or indicate any issues with Tesla’s branding before filing the accusation in July 2022.

Past Investigations and Advertising Language

Tesla further pointed out that the DMV had investigated its Advanced Driver Assist System (ADAS) advertising twice before, in 2014 and 2017, and chose not to take any action at those times. The company questions why the DMV waited until 2022 to file a claim against Tesla.

Additionally, Tesla highlighted that California had removed terms like “self-driving,” “automated,” and “auto-pilot” from its Statement About Autonomous Technology regulation. While this removal could suggest a lack of prohibition against using such language in advertising, the Statement also cautions against terms that might lead a reasonable person to believe a vehicle is autonomous.

Tesla Seeks Dismissal with Prejudice

In its response, Tesla is seeking a hearing to have the case dismissed with prejudice, signaling the company’s strong opposition to the allegations brought forth by the California DMV. As legal proceedings unfold, the outcome of this case will likely have implications for how autonomous driving technologies are marketed and regulated in the future.