The U.S. government’s highway safety agency is investigating Tesla software that allows drivers to play video games on touchscreen dashboards while their cars are in motion. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) confirmed Wednesday that it has opened an investigation and is in conversation with the auto and energy company about the feature.
“We are aware of the concerns of drivers and are discussing the functionality with the manufacturer,” an NHTSA spokeswoman wrote in an email. “The Vehicle Safety Act prohibits manufacturers from selling vehicles with design flaws that pose unreasonable safety risks. “
The agency has yet to launch a formal investigation into the software, which would involve asking for documents and other information. The spokesperson did not provide further details about her talks with Tesla.
Vince Patton, a 59-year-old retired broadcast journalist and owner of a 2021 Tesla Model 3, filed a complaint with NHTSA about the feature last month. He said that a YouTube video from another Tesla owner informed him of the playability, then he confirmed it himself by driving around an empty parking lot with a game called “Sky Force Reloaded. “activated on its dashboard.
“I was just stunned that, yes of course this fancy video game appeared,” Patton said, adding that he was also able to activate Solitaire and browse the internet while the car was in motion.
Although Patton said he loved his Tesla, he called the feature “crazy” and worried that it would become such a distraction for drivers that it could cause an accident.
In the complaint first reported on Tuesday by the New York Times, Patton wrote that the NHTSA must “ban all live video in the front seat and all live interactive web browsing while the car is in motion.”
“To create a dangerous distraction for the driver is reckless negligence,” the complaint said.
Tesla, who has disbanded its media relations department, did not respond to the AP’s messages.
The NHTSA investigation marks the latest in a growing list of possible offenses involving advanced automotive technology that are being reviewed by two federal agencies as potential safety risks.
The government is reviewing Tesla’s partially automated Autopilot driving system, as well as its “Full Self-Driving” software system, which is tested by selected owners on public roads. Additionally, as it ramps up oversight under President Joe Biden, the NHTSA is investigating internet software updates intended to address security issues and Tesla battery fires.
In its statement, the NHTSA said it is continuing its research into distracted driving and has issued voluntary guidelines for automakers to determine if a particular task interferes with a driver’s attention.
“If a task does not meet the acceptance criteria,” the statement said, “NHTSA guidelines recommend that the task be made inaccessible for performance by the driver while driving.”
The agency noted that crashes involving distracted drivers killed more than 3,100 people in 2019, representing about 9% of all road deaths in the United States. But safety experts argue that distracted driving accidents are underestimated.
It is not known how long Tesla allowed the games to play while the vehicles are moving. But Patton said a software update he noticed over the summer may have started allowing drivers to use “Sky Force Reloaded”. The game, he noted, involves missiles and lasers that can be fired at objects.
Before video games can be activated while the car is in motion, the driver is asked if he is a passenger and must click a button indicating that he is. But Patton said there appears to be no way for Tesla to confirm this fact.
“If you’re alone in the car,” he said, a driver could lie and still be able to play while driving.
“It’s not really a security barrier,” he said.
Even if only a passenger is playing the game, Patton said, it can still be inconvenient for the driver because the game takes up about two-thirds of the touchscreen. It also makes it harder for the driver to see the warnings and controls for the windshield defrosters, he said.
Previously, Patton said, the games could only be played when the vehicles were in the park. Many drivers use them while waiting for the batteries to be recharged at Tesla’s Supercharger stations, he said.
Jason Levine, executive director of the nonprofit Center for Auto Safety, said in an email that NHTSA has the authority to report defective vehicles and request a recall.
“There is no question that having a large screen next to the driver on which the driver, or a passenger, can play a video game while the vehicle is in motion is an unreasonable safety risk,” Levine wrote. “Recent NHTSA statements suggest that this feature is in violation of both the spirit and the letter of the NHTSA Distracted Driving Guidelines and the law.”
Tesla’s autopilot system has been misused by drivers in the past, who thwarted its hands-on-the-wheel detection system. In one case, a California driver was arrested while riding in the back seat as the car was traveling on a freeway.
After investigating two fatal crashes involving autopilot, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended that Tesla install a camera system to make sure drivers are careful. The agency said in October that Tesla had not officially responded.
Tesla said that despite their names, Autopilot and “Full Self-Driving” are only driver assistance systems and cannot drive themselves. He says drivers should always be careful and be prepared to take action.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.