Tesla says California's Autopilot action violates its free speech rights

Elon's biz claims 1st Amendment rights

It may have taken more than a year, but Tesla has finally responded to the California Department of Motor Vehicles allegations that it misrepresented Autopilot's capabilities, arguing that it's free to do so under the US Constitution. 

In a document [PDF] filed with California's Office of Administrative Hearings last week lawyers representing Elon Musk's electric car company didn't directly challenge the DMV's specific allegations that Tesla may have overblown Autopilot's autonomy, marketing it less as an advanced driver assist system (ADAS) and more of a full self-driving platform. 

Instead, they said that the DMV's case, filed in July 2022, ought to be tossed because it's "facially invalid under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and Article I, Section 2, of the California Constitution. 

"These statutes and regulations, as applied to Tesla in this proceeding, are unconstitutional … as they impermissibly restrict Tesla's truthful and non-misleading speech about its vehicles and their features," Tesla lawyers argued. 

It's not clear whether the "truthful and non-misleading speech" refers to Autopilot's capabilities, which the biz doesn't otherwise defend in its rebuttal. We've reached out to Tesla and its lawyers in this case. 

Various US regulatory bodies have launched investigations into the hype surrounding Autopilot's capabilities, including the US Department of Justice. The DoJ subpoenaed Tesla in the case in October, requesting additional information about Autopilot's capabilities.

The US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is also looking into whether Tesla's marketing of Autopilot has led to drivers placing too much faith in the system's capabilities, exacerbating safety risks.

All the ways Tesla says the DMV case fails

In addition to its first amendment argument, Tesla also said that the California DMV is violating its rights to have a jury trial, under the US Constitution's 7th Amendment and Article I, Section 16 of California's Constitution, both of which cover rights to trial by a jury. The DMV's actions violate that right because the case is before an administrative law judge and not a panel of citizens, the lawyers argue. 

Tesla also claims that the DMV has no right to prosecute it for false advertising of Autopilot's capabilities because it knew perfectly well how the company had been describing it, but didn't take action before. 

"Claimant has been aware that Tesla has been using the brand names Autopilot and Full Self-Driving Capability since Tesla started using those names in 2014 and 2016 respectively," Tesla said.

"Before Claimant filed the original Accusation in July 2022, Claimant had never told Tesla to stop using these brand names or otherwise indicated to Tesla that these brand names or its advertising were in any way problematic." 

Tesla also argued that the DMV has investigated its ADAS advertising twice before, in 2014 and 2017, and decided at the time to take no action. We asked the DMV why it waited after its investigations to file a claim against Tesla, but haven't heard back. 

Additionally, Tesla said that California opted to remove the terms "self-driving," "automated," and "auto-pilot," from the state's Statement About Autonomous Technology regulation, meaning there's no prohibition against using such language in an advertisement. 

The Statement does mention, however, that the use of terms that "will likely induce a reasonably prudent person to believe a vehicle is autonomous … constitute an advertisement that the vehicle is autonomous for the purposes of this section," making it unclear whether Tesla's argument here would hold much water.

Tesla is seeking a hearing to have the case tossed with prejudice. ®

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