Tesla Quizzed Over Autopilot Update Stopping Driver Monitoring

US road automotive safety regulators are demanding to know why Tesla changed its Autopilot cruise control software suite to allow drivers to take their hands off the steering wheel.

The move is seen by many as a contributory factor for Tesla cars that have been involved in multiple fatal and serious injury accidents since the launch of its Autopilot system. Reuters reports that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) ordered Tesla to answer questions about the Autopilot change and produce documents in a so-called special order dated July 26. The NHTSA order did not compel Tesla to recall vehicles but in a letter the automaker, it said: “The resulting relaxation of controls… could lead to greater driver inattention and failure of the driver to properly supervise Autopilot.”

The NHTSA order shows how safety measures can be overturned in an instant by automaker over-the-air software updates without the knowledge or permission of any industry regulator. It also asked Tesla when the software update was introduced, the number of vehicles affected, the reason for installing and collisions or near-misses involving vehicles with the software.

The agency wrote: “NHTSA is concerned that this feature was introduced to consumer vehicles and, now that the existence of this feature is known to the public, more drivers may attempt to activate it.”

In April, chief executive Elon Musk tweeted that Tesla is gradually reducing the steering wheel “nag”, an alert aimed at making sure drivers using Tesla’s “Full Self-Driving” (FSD) system keep their hands on the wheel. He also this week said “Yeah” in response to an X tweet that “No steering wheel nag will be a *game changer* for FSD user satisfaction”.

Musk will soon face a major test of his assertions about the technology’s safety when Tesla defends itself later this year in a trial over allegations that failure of its Autopilot driver assistant feature led to death.

The agency’s acting head Ann Carlson told Reuters last week that a resolution of the Autopilot investigation will come soon, adding that it is “really important that driver monitoring systems take into account that humans over-trust technology”.

The agency is investigating the performance of Autopilot after identifying more than a dozen crashes in which Tesla vehicles hit stationary emergency vehicles. It is also investigating whether Tesla vehicles adequately ensure drivers are paying attention when using the driver assistance system.

— Paul Myles is a seasoned automotive journalist based in Europe. Follow him on Twitter @Paulmyles_  and Threads

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *