Feds investigate Tesla crash, adding to Elon Musk’s headaches

By Eric Johansson

The feds have launched another investigation into Elon Musk’s car company after a Tesla crashed into a police vehicle, adding to headaches already including a Chinese ban of its models and hacks affecting the firm.

The latest incident involved a 22-year-old Tesla driver slamming into a parked Michigan State police car late on Wednesday, while allegedly using the vehicle’s Autopilot driver-assistance system. The officers on the scene had parked their vehicle to investigate a previous car crash. Police officials said that the vehicle’s emergency lights were on when the Tesla crashed into it. Nobody was injured.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) subsequently sent out another Special Crash Investigation (SCI) team to investigate the Tesla crash. NHTSA has previously launched at least 14 different SCI investigations involving the electronic carmaker, Reuters reported. None of these probes have so far yielded any further action.

This latest incident has reignited concerns about Tesla’s Autopilot system, which enables the car to drive itself for long stretches of time without any human interaction.

While Tesla advises its drivers to keep their hands on the wheel and their attention on the road, several drivers have said that they can avoid doing so for extended periods while using the system.

Autopilot has been involved in at least three deaths since 2016. In February 2020, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) sharply criticised Tesla’s lack of system safeguards during a fatal 2018 Autopilot crash in California.

From Tesla crash to Chinese military ban

Meanwhile, Chinese authorities have banned Tesla vehicles from military complexes and housing compounds, citing fears that the cars’ in-built cameras could gather sensitive data.

The new military order advised Tesla owners to park their cars outside of these properties, according to sources speaking with Bloomberg.

Teslas have several types of in-built cameras in them. Some cameras are used to guide parking and self-driving functions, much like those in rival brands.

Many Teslas also have cameras on the inside of the car to track whether or not the driver is paying attention to the road. These cameras are also used to monitor Tesla’s own driver-assist tests.

In Beijing’s bad books

The military ban is another sign of the deteriorating relationship between China and the electronic automaker, which is betting heavily on the Chinese market for its future growth.

The Chinese government has also launched several initiatives aimed at upping the number of electronic vehicles in the country. The nation produced more than half of all new energy vehicles in the world in 2017, a number expected to grow in the years to come.

Tesla has previously made inroads to secure a slice of this key market, having begun initial production at its Shanghai Gigafactory 3 in 2019. The factory was Tesla’s first such factory outside of the States.

Musk, whose latest shenanigans include penning a song about non-fungible tokens and changing his official title to “Technoking of Tesla”, has adopted a less boisterous persona in China than in the US, being more deferent to the powers that be.

Despite these efforts, Tesla has found itself in Beijing’s bad books on several recent occasions.

Tesla was forced to publicly apologise to China’s state grid in early February after a video emerged supposedly showing the automaker’s employees blaming a car fire on an overload in the national electricity grid.

Regulators have also recently probed the carmaker about quality and safety issues in its cars, including battery fires and abnormal acceleration.

Hackers, hackers, everywhere hackers

Alongside the setbacks in China and the feds investigating another car crash, Tesla has also found itself the victim of several highly publicised hacks.

The latest occured in March. Tesla was one of the organisations affected by a digital assault against Californian security company Verkada that compromised 150,000 security cameras.

The cybercriminals accessed cameras inside Tesla factories, Cloudfare offices, hospitals and police stations as well as inside Sandy Hook Elementary School, which was involved in a school shooting in 2012 that left 28 people dead.

The incident was the latest one in a string of cybersecurity stories involving the automaker. In March 2020, Tesla and SpaceX were both affected when a precision parts maker they use was compromised in a cybersecurity incident. Following the Visser Precision breach, hackers published files on a website, threatening to publish more unless the company paid a ransom. The documents included non-disclosure agreements between Visser and the two Musk-owned companies.

In November, Belgian researchers discovered a bug that would enable bad actors to overwrite and hijack key fobs to the Tesla Model X, enabling them to steal cars within minutes.

Musk himself was famously one of the celebrities whose Twitter accounts were compromised in a hack attack last summer. The breach enabled the criminals to use the accounts to post links to a bitcoin scheme. Jeff Bezos, Kanye West, Joe Biden and Bill Gates were some of the other celebrities whose accounts were used in the scheme.

On a slightly more positive note, one cybercrook could soon be facing justice.

Russian national Egor Igorevich Kriuchkov pleaded guilty this week to travelling to the US in order to coerce an employee of a large US company, widely believed to be Tesla. Kriuchkov attempted to convince the employee to transmit malware into the company’s computer network. He and his co-conspirators would use it to exfiltrate data from the company’s computer network and then extort the company by threatening to disclose the data.

While the would-be victim of the breach has not been officially revealed as Tesla, Musk himself seemingly agreed on Twitter with media reports identifying Tesla as the target of the attack.

Whoever the target was, it seems as if Kriuchkov picked the wrong employee as the worker reported their meeting with the Russian to the company, which subsequently contacted the FBI.

“The swift response of the company and the FBI prevented a major exfiltration of the victim company’s data and stopped the extortion scheme at its inception,” said Nicholas McQuaid, acting assistant attorney general of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division. “This case highlights the importance of companies coming forward to law enforcement, and the positive results when they do so.”


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