Tesla Ordered by NHTSA to Address New Issue Over Autopilot

Regulators’ Letter Dated July 26 Gave Tesla Aug. 25 Deadline to Respond
Tesla signage in Japan
The Tesla Inc. logo displayed at a Tesla Motors Japan store in Tokyo. (Shoko Takayasu/Bloomberg News)

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Tesla Inc. is facing increased scrutiny from federal regulators over its driver-assistance system known as Autopilot, with the electric carmaker being the target of a “special order” amid concerns about a possible workaround of monitoring meant to keep drivers’ hands on the wheel.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said in a letter posted to the agency’s website on Aug. 29 that it has become aware that Tesla has “introduced an Autopilot configuration that, when enabled, allows drivers using Autopilot to operate their vehicles for extended periods without Autopilot prompting the driver to apply torque to the steering wheel.”

The agency’s letter, which was dated July 26, asked Tesla to respond by Aug. 25 to address the possibility the feature could be used to subvert efforts to keep drivers alert and ready to resume full control of the vehicle.

NHTSA confirmed in a second document posted Aug. 29 that the Elon Musk-led company submitted a confidential reply in time to meet that deadline. Tesla had no immediate response to a request for comment.

The regulator’s letter about the software configuration comes after a June CNBC report about an Autopilot setting that allows drivers to keep their hands off the wheel for an extended time period, what one online security researcher dubbed “Elon mode.” 

Tesla’s website notes that the Autopilot software is “intended for use with a fully attentive driver, who has their hands on the wheel and is prepared to take over at any moment.”

The Autopilot probe, which NHTSA launched in 2021, is among a series of investigations targeting Tesla, its products and its CEO, Elon Musk. Federal regulators are looking into possible problems with Tesla’s seat belts, steering wheels and driver-assistance features.

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