The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration asked EV maker Tesla to address questions related to 758 phantom braking complaints related its semiautonomous driving technology by June 20.
The issue stems from use of Autopilot, which is a semiautonomous technology. The program allows the vehicle to do a variety of things, including change lanes and, most relevant here, apply the brakes when there is reason to do so.
The agency began to look into the issue in February. It covers nearly 420,000 2021 and 2022 Tesla Model 3 and Model Y vehicles. However, at the time federal regulators began their investigation, there were 354 complaints about the issue. It’s more than doubled since then.
According to the complaints, the braking can come quickly, harshly and without any warning. Complaints made by many owners to Tesla have reportedly been brushed off, the company saying it’s “normal.” Since then, it’s been dubbed “phantom braking.”
NHTSA said in February the “complainants report that the rapid deceleration can occur without warning, at random, and often repeatedly in a single drive cycle.” One person noted his vehicle went from 80 mph to 69 mph in less than a second, nearly causing him to lose control of his vehicle, Reuters reported.
More phantom than realized
While the issue has netted 750-plus formal complaints, those familiar with the technology suggest some of those may be overblown.
Sam Rabinowitz, co-founder of Drivyn, a Nevada-based company that offers programs to teach new and prospective Tesla owners about the intricacies of the vehicles from the EV maker, said he and other employees have experienced the issue, although not to the extremes some have reported to federal investigators.
He believes some of the complaints stem from people who are unfamiliar with the technology. Others stem from the difference in being a driver versus sitting in the driver’s seat — but not driving. He noted that because people are typically in control of their vehicles they are prepared for changes in speed or the occasionally forceful brake. However, when the vehicle is making the decisions, the entire experience is different, especially how it feels.
Sometimes drivers and passengers experience “an exaggerated feeling,” because “you don’t expect it to slow down for some (unknown) reason,” he said. “You’re not the one pushing the brake, so your brain doesn’t actually register that the car is gonna slow down.”
What’s the reason?
Tesla officials have said the braking is “normal,” and it’s an assertion Rabinowitz largely agrees with, although he does allow for some outliers. He noted the issues occur most often during city driving when there are more potential issues to track and assess.
“Sometimes is does it without any reason to,” he said, “it could be shadows, nobody really quite knows exactly all the situations when it happens.”
Unusual terrain or situations are often the most difficult for the camera-only-based system to operate in. Rabinowitz noted in some hilly areas where a vehicle goes up a hill, then down and then back up, that can trigger the system. He noted other obstructions on the road, such as temporary signs or traffic barrels could be problematic.
“Sometimes it can overreact,” he said. “Personally, I’d rather have it a little safer than not.”
What to do?
Rabinowitz asserts the key is to follow the guidance given by the vehicle maker and be prepared to take over operation of the vehicle at any time. He said that by monitoring your surroundings as well as watching the gauges and instruments on the center screen, drivers can anticipate when the technology will attempt to avoid trouble, including the hard or phantom braking NHTSA is investigating.
Additionally, he noted sometimes by applying pressure to the accelerator in those situations, the driver can mitigate the harshness of the event, although that clearly takes some training — which his company has developed.
“There are some learning challenges,” he noted. “(The) technology is amazing — it’s just not perfect.”