DETROIT — Tesla is letting some drivers 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 today 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 today seeking comment from Tesla.
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 involving partially automated driving systems. At lest 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.