Unsurprisingly, the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has questions for Tesla after CEO Elon Musk tweeted that a future software update would remove a driver monitoring safeguard from the company’s vehicles. The safeguard requires drivers to keep their hands on the wheel when using the Autopilot Full Self-Driving (FSD) system.
First reported by the Associated Press, an NHTSA spokesperson confirmed to The Verge that the agency had reached out to Tesla to gather information about Musk’s tweet. Moreover, the information gathering is part of a broader investigation into Tesla’s Autopilot system, which has been linked to over a dozen crashes involving stationary emergency vehicles.
It’s worth noting that Tesla made its FSD Beta available to everyone in North America who requests it (assuming they’ve bought the feature) in November.
The Musk tweet in question was posted on December 31st in response to a tweet from Omar Qazi, a Tesla shareholder that tweets under the handle ‘@WholeMarsBlog.’ (You may remember this account as the one that sought actual children to stand in front of a Tesla vehicle to prove the Autopilot system would stop before striking them.) Qazi suggested Tesla owners with over 10,000 miles on the FSD Beta should be able to turn off the “steering wheel nag.” Musk replied, “Agreed, update coming in Jan.”
Agreed, update coming in Jan
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) December 31, 2022
However, regulators and safety experts have long wanted Tesla to improve its driver monitoring systems, not degrade them. Tesla’s FSD Beta is a ‘Level 2’ advanced driver-assistance system, despite Musk’s repeated promises that it would soon be fully autonomous. That means the driver must remain fully engaged in operating the vehicle.
Other vehicle manufacturers, like General Motors and Ford, include camera-based eye-tracking systems in their vehicles. These systems are meant to ensure drivers pay attention when using driver assistance features. Tesla, on the other hand, uses torque sensors in the steering wheel to make sure drivers keep their hands at the ready. However, some have found ways to trick this system, with Consumer Reports discovering that a heavy chain could be used to simulate hands on the wheel.
The FSD Beta has proven controversial as Tesla has increased availability. Aside from the ongoing NHTSA investigation — which could be headed toward a recall — there’s also a U.S. Justice Department investigation, and Tesla is facing a lawsuit claiming it mislead customers about the capabilities of FSD.