Automakers use their now-ubiquitous video screens to operate a variety of vehicle functions and features but Tesla appears to have added one that may run afoul of federal safety regulators: the ability for a driver to play video games even while the vehicle is in motion.
That, it turns out, is the subject of YouTube videos and social media posts — and a complaint filed with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration by Vince Patton, a retired journalist from Portland, Oregon.
He learned about the new feature while surfing online and then took out his own Model 3 sedan. With a tap on a pull-down menu he was able to play games like Solitaire and “Sky Force Reloaded” while driving around a local college parking lot. He followed up by filing his complaint — which has triggered an initial probe by NHTSA.
“I was just dumbfounded,” Patton told the Associated Press. “Somebody’s going to get killed,” he added. “It’s absolutely insane.”
Just a click away
The 59-year-old former broadcaster noted he first had to click a box asking if he was a passenger. There was nothing to prevent him from doing so, even though he was actually the driver, however. Tesla has repeatedly come under fire from groups like Consumer Reports and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety for failing to install a driver monitoring system. As a result, drivers have been reported repeatedly misusing Tesla’s Autopilot system, some even falling asleep behind the wheel after engaging the semi-autonomous technology.
NHTSA has reached out to Tesla — even as it moves ahead with other safety investigations.
“We are aware of driver concerns and are discussing the feature with the manufacturer,” the agency said in a statement about Patton’s videogame complaint, adding, “Distraction-affected crashes are a concern, particularly in vehicles equipped with an array of convenience technologies such as entertainment screens.”
Videoscreens have become ubiquitous in today’s automobiles. At their most basic, they operate functions like the radio and climate control. They also can handle onboard navigation and any number of other features. Ford and General Motors, among others, have introduced “marketplaces” where motorists can do things like order food or even schedule a flight.
Federal safety guidelines require that all but a limited number of such functions are locked out once a vehicle starts moving. Motorists aren’t even permitted to pair smartphones using Bluetooth until they stop or park. And companies such as General Motors, Ford and Mercedes-Benz use cameras or other sensors to make sure drivers remain focused — and in their seats — while operating semi-autonomous driving systems.
In August, NHTSA began an investigation into 11 crashes that have occurred in the U.S. since January 2018, including ones where vehicles allegedly operating on Autopilot have struck stationary police cars and fire trucks.
Critics have raised concerns that some of those incidents may have involved distracted drivers who failed to respond when Autopilot either malfunctioned or signaled them to retake control. In a 2016 Florida crash that killed a former Navy SEAL, regulators determined that he was watching videos on a portable device and didn’t realize the Tesla Autopilot system ignored a light-colored truck that had pulled into his path.
Escalating the debate
The latest complaint filed against Tesla could escalate the debate over what can be done using onboard technology. Rear-seat entertainment systems have become commonplace and manufacturers contend they actually can enhance safety by keeping children entertained, rather than distracting their parents while driving.
Several manufacturers, including Mercedes and Jeep, now offer a separate videoscreen for front seat passengers, however. But they either limit what can be shown while driving or are designed so that video entertainment cannot be seen by the driver.
Distracted driving has become a major safety issue, NHTSA blaming it for 3,100 deaths, or about 9% of total highway fatalities in 2019. It is yet unclear what role distractions like texting while driving have played in the surge in highway crashes and fatalities since the COVID pandemic began.
TheDetroitBureau.com has reached out to Tesla for comment on the video game controversy. It so far has not received a response. The automaker last year eliminated its public relations department.