New Investigations of Tesla Driver-Assist

A recent update to Tesla’s Autopilot software allows some drivers to use its driver-assist feature for extended periods without requiring hands on the steering wheel. This development is setting off alarm bells among U.S. safety officials and raises concerns about defective products endangering the public.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has demanded information from Tesla regarding the number of vehicles that have received this potentially hazardous software update. The agency is also seeking to understand Tesla’s future plans for rolling out this feature to more consumers.

NHTSA’s acting chief counsel, John Donaldson, issued a public letter emphasizing that the alteration of controls meant to keep drivers actively engaged poses a direct threat to road safety. “This could lead to greater driver inattention and failure of the driver to properly supervise Autopilot,” Donaldson wrote.

Despite ongoing investigations into Autopilot-related accidents—including collisions with parked emergency vehicles and fatalities—Tesla CEO Elon Musk continues to promote the feature. A total of 17 deaths have been linked to Tesla crashes that might have involved the Autopilot or other partially automated driving systems since 2016.

Tesla’s Defense Undermines Public Safety

Tesla insists that its Autopilot and the more advanced “Full Self-Driving” systems are not autonomous and require driver intervention. However, by releasing a software update that allows for extended hands-free driving, Tesla seems to contradict its own guidelines, potentially contributing to consumer confusion and unsafe driving practices.

The NHTSA’s directive also requires Tesla to disclose any modifications in the updated software, particularly those that affect how frequently the system prompts the driver to place hands on the wheel. These “nags,” as they are colloquially referred to by Tesla owners, were initially designed to alert the driver every three minutes, but this period has been inconsistently reduced in later updates.

Legal Ramifications for Defective Product

Tesla has until Aug. 25 to provide a sworn response to NHTSA’s inquiries, failing which the agency may escalate the matter to the Justice Department. Such an escalation could result in penalties of over $131 million.

Safety advocates and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) have previously criticized Tesla for its inadequate driver monitoring systems. The NTSB even recommended in 2017 that Tesla and other automakers limit the use of such automated features to divided highways and strengthen their driver-monitoring systems—a recommendation that Tesla alone ignored.

Consumer Reports’ Jake Fisher noted that while some newer Tesla models include cameras to monitor drivers, these features were ineffective during their 2022 testing of the Autopilot system. According to Fisher, “Cameras are better at ensuring that drivers pay attention than steering wheel monitors.”

As Tesla continues to sidestep comprehensive safety measures, the latest Autopilot software update not only exposes drivers to risk but also endangers the wider public. Regulators and consumers alike are left questioning Tesla’s commitment to safety over innovation, as the company seems to prioritize pushing the envelope over safeguarding the lives of its customers and fellow road users.

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