Tesla’s hands-free Autopilot feature, which lets drivers drive without having to hold the steering wheel for extended periods, is under investigation by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in the US. The agency has requested data from Tesla regarding this feature, as reported by Bloomberg.
The NHTSA’s inquiry stems from incidents where Tesla vehicles have collided with emergency vehicles. The agency’s letter to Tesla, sent last month and recently published on its website, expresses worries about a specific Autopilot setup. This setup enables drivers to use the system for extended periods without needing to apply force to the steering wheel.
Safety Controls and ‘Elon Mode’
Normally, when a driver uses Tesla’s Autopilot or Full Self-Driving mode and removes their hands from the steering wheel, the car’s touchscreen displays a blinking symbol. If the driver continues to not grip the wheel, the system progresses to emitting beeping sounds. If no action is taken, the Autopilot functionality can be disabled.
In June, The Verge reported that a software hacker had discovered a way to deactivate this safety feature, playfully labeling it “Elon mode.”
Concerns Over Potential Misuse
The NHTSA’s letter expressed concerns that drivers might try to activate this potentially risky mode, given its reported existence. Tesla has not publicly acknowledged the feature’s presence.
The agency stated in its letter, “Allowing the controls to loosen, which are meant to ensure the driver’s engagement in the driving task, could result in increased driver distraction and failure to properly supervise Autopilot.”
Tesla’s user manual advises drivers using Autopilot to “always keep your hands on the steering wheel.” Elon Musk mentioned last December that a forthcoming software update would allow some Tesla drivers to disable the reminder notifications, commonly referred to as the “nag,” but this has not been implemented yet.
Tesla response to NHTSA
On August 25, the NHTSA confirmed that Tesla had submitted a confidential response to their inquiry.
Earlier this month, Elon Musk live streamed himself driving a Tesla in Palo Alto, California while using a phone, which violates both Tesla’s rules and California state law. However, Palo Alto police clarified that Musk would not be fined for this violation since no officer had directly witnessed the act.