UNITED STATES NEWS

Tesla is allowing no-hands driving with Autopilot for longer periods. US regulators have questions

Aug 30, 2023, 4:50 AM | Updated: 5:50 pm

DETROIT (AP) — Tesla is allowing some drivers to use its Autopilot driver-assist system for extended periods without making them put their hands on the steering wheel, a development that has drawn concern from U.S. safety regulators.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has ordered Tesla to tell the agency how many vehicles have received a software update making that possible and it’s seeking more information on what the electric vehicle maker’s plans are for wider distribution.

“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,” John Donaldson, the agency’s acting chief counsel, wrote in a July 26 letter to Tesla that was posted on the agency’s website. “The resulting relaxation of controls designed to ensure that the driver remain engaged in the dynamic driving task could lead to greater driver inattention and failure of the driver to properly supervise Autopilot.”

A message was left early Wednesday seeking comment from Tesla. “If you haven’t tried Tesla Autopilot, you don’t know how awesome it is,” Tesla CEO Elon Musk wrote Wednesday on X, formerly Twitter.

The government has been investigating Autopilot for crashing into emergency vehicles parked on freeways, as well as hitting motorcycles and crossing tractor-trailers. It opened a formal probe in 2021 and since 2016 has sent investigators to 35 Tesla crashes that may involve partially automated driving systems. At least 17 people have died.

Tesla says Autopilot and a more sophisticated “Full Self-Driving” system cannot drive themselves and that drivers must be ready to intervene at all times. Autopilot generally can keep a car in its lane and a distance away from objects in front of it.

The special order tells Tesla to describe differences in the software update that reduces or eliminates instances where Autopilot tells drivers to apply pressure on the steering wheel, “including the amount of time that Autopilot is allowed to operate without prompting torque, and any warnings or chimes that are presented to the driver.”

The letter to Tesla Senior Legal Director Dinna Eskin orders the Austin, Texas, company to say why it installed the software update and how it justifies which consumers got it.

It also seeks reports of crashes and near misses involving vehicles with the software update. “Your response should include any plans to enable the subject software in consumer vehicles within the next calendar year,” Donaldson wrote in the letter.

A Tesla officer has to respond to the letter under oath by Aug. 25 or the agency will refer the matter to the Justice Department, which can seek a maximum penalty of more than $131 million.

Tesla’s system of monitoring drivers has been criticized by safety advocates and the National Transportation Safety Board for letting drivers check out when Autopilot is operating.

After investigating three crashes involving Autopilot, the NTSB recommended in 2017 that Tesla and five other automakers limit where the partially automated systems can be used to limited-access divided highways, and to bolster their systems that monitor drivers.

All of the automakers but Tesla responded. In 2021 NTSB Chairwoman Jennifer Homendy wrote a letter to Musk calling on him to act on the recommendations. The NTSB said Musk never responded.

The NTSB investigates crashes but has no regulatory authority. It can only make recommendations to automakers or other federal agencies such as NHTSA.

Most other automakers use an infrared camera to make sure a driver is paying attention. Some Teslas lately have been equipped with cameras that watch drivers.

Jake Fisher, who heads auto testing for Consumer Reports, said Tesla may have activated the cameras to monitor drivers, and that may be the reason for relaxing the steering wheel notifications.

But during its last test of Autopilot in 2022, the cameras didn’t do anything, and older Teslas aren’t equipped with the cameras, Fisher said. However, the cameras did monitor drivers when using “Full Self-Driving,” Fisher said.

Cameras, he said, are better at ensuring that drivers pay attention than steering wheel monitors.

Tesla owners refer to alerts about hands on the steering wheel as “nags.”

When Autopilot was first introduced in 2015, it warned drivers to pay attention if it didn’t feel torque on the steering wheel for about three minutes, Fisher said. Later that was reduced to 30 seconds, but it changes between software updates, he said. “It always seems to be jumping around,” he said.

Consumer Reports also has found that it’s easy to bypass Tesla’s steering wheel monitoring system.

Earlier this month NHTSA sent investigators to a crash in Virginia in which a Tesla apparently on Autopilot ran underneath a tractor-trailer, killing the driver.

United States News

The U.S. Supreme Court is seen, Thursday, Feb. 8, 2024, in Washington. The U.S. Supreme Court has h...

Associated Press

Supreme Court decision on Trump’s election status could come Monday morning

A SCOTUS decision could come Monday in the case about whether Trump can be kicked off the ballot over his efforts to undo his 2020 defeat.

2 hours ago

Republican presidential candidate former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley poses for a selfie after speakin...

Associated Press

Nikki Haley wins D.C. Republican primary, her first 2024 victory

Nikki Haley has won the Republican primary in the District of Columbia, notching her first victory of the 2024 campaign.

3 hours ago

(Suspect mugshot via @KPRC2Bryce/X)...

Associated Press

Texas police arrest suspect in abduction of 12-year-old girl who was found safe after 8 days

Police in Texas have arrested a man suspected in the disappearance of a girl who was missing for eight days before she was safely located.

3 hours ago

FILE - A voting sign is seen near a voting center at Croft Baptist Church, Feb. 24, 2024, in Sparta...

Associated Press

A chunk of Republican primary and caucus voters say they wouldn’t vote for Trump as the GOP nominee

About 1 in 10 early contest voters who said they supported Trump in the 2020 general election said they wouldn’t be doing so this year.

5 hours ago

Associated Press

2 police horses on the lam cause traffic jam on I-90 in Cleveland area

CLEVELAND (AP) — Drivers on an Ohio interstate came upon an unusual traffic hazard over the weekend — a pair of police horses trotting against traffic on the highway. The two animals on the lam caused an unusual traffic jam Saturday afternoon as they wove through slowing traffic and then stopped it on Interstate 90 […]

9 hours ago

On Friday, March 1, 2024, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said yogurt sold in the U.S. can ma...

Associated Press

Eating yogurt may reduce risk of type 2 diabetes, FDA says

Eating at least two cups of yogurt a week might reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said.

9 hours ago

Sponsored Articles

...

Day & Night Air Conditioning, Heating and Plumbing

Day & Night is looking for the oldest AC in the Valley

Does your air conditioner make weird noises or a burning smell when it starts? If so, you may be due for an AC unit replacement.

...

Sanderson Ford

The best ways to honor our heroes on Veterans Day and give back to the community

Veterans Day is fast approaching and there's no better way to support our veterans than to donate to the Military Assistance Mission.

...

Canvas Annuity

Interest rates may have peaked. Should you buy a CD, high-yield savings account, or a fixed annuity?

Interest rates are the highest they’ve been in decades, and it looks like the Fed has paused hikes. This may be the best time to lock in rates for long-term, low-risk financial products like fixed annuities.

Tesla is allowing no-hands driving with Autopilot for longer periods. US regulators have questions