Tesla has released a software update for select vehicles that allows the driver to use the Autopilot driver-assist system for longer periods without having to touch the steering wheel. This news has raised safety concerns for many, including United States regulatory agencies. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration issued an order to Tesla that they release information to them regarding who received the update and how many people in total have the update available. They also ask that the automaker inform them of what their long-term, widespread plan is for future distribution.
John Donaldson, the acting chief counsel of the NHTSA, wrote a letter to Tesla that has since been uploaded to their website as well. In it, he addresses the agency’s concerns with the vehicle update and the safety risks it poses. He also spoke on the danger that now exists because the feature was announced publicly. They expect this to create a larger number of people who will try to activate the feature. This will just lead to more people driving distractedly and lower driver attention spans.
Tesla’s CEO, Elon Musk, reacted to the letter by posting on X, formerly Twitter, saying “If you haven’t tried Tesla Autopilot, you don’t know how awesome it is.”
This scandal for Tesla comes at a time when the Autopilot feature is already under investigation by regulatory agencies. There have been a number of cases in which Teslas have been reported crashing into emergency vehicles that are parked along freeways, hitting motorcycles, and crossing tractor-trailers. Since 2016, at least 17 people have died due to Autopilot use.
Previously, Tesla has called their Autopilot system just assistance and has advised their drivers to be attentive and at the ready to resume hands-on driving at any moment. However, the extension of time allotted without interfering affects people’s perception of this rule.
The reality of Autopilot is, it ultimately is just meant to keep a car in the lane and maintain a safe distance from surrounding objects.
Tesla has thus far not been cooperative with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration on their request for an explanation of who the update was made available to and why. The agency has also now added a request for data showing reports of crashes on vehicles with the update versus vehicles without it.