Last August, Vince Patton watched a YouTube video from a Tesla owner who made a startling observation: Tesla drivers could now play a video game on their car’s touchscreen dashboard while the vehicle is moving.
Curious to see for yourself, Patton drove his own Tesla Model 3 to an empty community college parking lot in 2021, activated a game called Sky Force Reloaded from a menu, and did a few loops.
“I was just amazed that this sophisticated video game actually showed up,” said Patton, a 59-year-old retired television journalist who lives near Portland, Oregon.
He also tried Solitaire and was able to activate this game while driving. He later found that he could surf the Internet while driving.
Patton, who loves his car and says he has nothing against Tesla, fears the drivers are playing games and being dangerously distracted.
“Someone is getting killed,” he said. “It’s absolutely insane.”
Because of this, Patton decided to file a complaint with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration early last month.
“The NHTSA must ban all live video in the front seat and all live interactive web browsers while the car is in motion,” Patton wrote in his complaint. “Creating a dangerous distraction for the driver is recklessly negligent.”
On Wednesday, the NHTSA confirmed that it is investigating the matter. The New York Times first reported on Patton’s complaint on Tuesday.
“We are aware of the concerns of the drivers and are discussing the function with the manufacturer,” wrote an NHTSA spokeswoman in an email. “The Vehicle Safety Act prohibits manufacturers from selling vehicles with design flaws that pose an unreasonable safety risk.”
The spokeswoman declined to provide further details on her talks with Tesla. The Agency has not opened a formal investigation requesting documents and other detailed information. Tesla, which has disbanded its media division, did not respond to news from The Associated Press.
The NHTSA’s investigation marks the latest in a growing list of potential breaches related to advanced automotive technology under review by two federal agencies as potential safety risks.
The government is testing Tesla’s semi-automated driving system Autopilot and its software system “Full Self-Driving”, which is being tested by selected owners on public roads. In addition, as the NHTSA strengthens control under President Joe Biden, it is investigating Internet software updates to fix security issues and Tesla battery fires.
In its statement, NHTSA said it continues to research distractions from driving and that it has issued voluntary guidelines for automakers to determine if a particular task interferes with the driver’s alertness.
“If a task does not meet the acceptance criteria,” says the statement, “the NHTSA guidelines recommend making the task inaccessible to the driver while driving.”
The agency found that distracted driver accidents killed more than 3,100 people in 2019, accounting for about 9% of all road deaths in the United States. However, safety experts argue that distracted driving accidents are underestimated.
It is unclear how long Tesla will allow games to be played while vehicles are moving. But Patton said a software update he noticed over the summer may have started Sky Force Reloaded to be used by drivers. The game, he noted, includes missiles and lasers that can be fired at objects.
Before the video games can be activated while driving, drivers are asked if they are passengers and have to click a button to confirm this. But Patton said there doesn’t seem to be a way for Tesla to confirm that fact.
“When you’re alone in the car,” he said, a driver could lie down and play while the car was driving.
“That’s not a big security barrier,” he said.
Even if only one passenger is playing the game, it can still be distracting for the driver as the game takes up about two-thirds of the touchscreen, Patton said. This also makes it harder for drivers to see warnings and controls for windshield defrosters, he said.
Previously, Patton said, games could only be played while the vehicles were in the park. Many drivers use them while waiting for the batteries at Tesla’s Supercharger stations to be charged, he said.
However, the car prevented him from watching movies on Netflix and YouTube while driving, he said.
Jason Levine, executive director of the non-profit center for car safety, said in an email that the NHTSA had the authority to declare the vehicles defective and request a recall.
“There is no question that having a large screen next to the driver, on which the driver or a passenger can play a video game while driving, poses an unreasonable safety hazard,” wrote Levine. “Recent statements by the NHTSA suggest that this feature is against the spirit and letter of NHTSA’s driver distraction guidelines and against the law.”
Tesla’s autopilot system has been misused in the past by drivers who thwarted its system for detecting hands on the steering wheel. In one case, a driver was arrested in California while driving in the back seat as the car rolled down a freeway.
After investigating two autopilot fatal accidents, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended Tesla install a camera system to ensure drivers were alert. The agency said in October that Tesla hadn’t officially responded.
Tesla has said that despite their names, autopilot and “full self-driving” are just driver assistance systems and cannot drive themselves. It says drivers should always be careful and ready to take action.