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Federal regulators probing Tesla over drivers’ ability to play video games in moving cars

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimated about 580,000 vehicles were affected

A touch screen display shows navigation and mapping information inside a Tesla Model 3. (Angel Garcia/Bloomberg News)
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Auto safety officials are probing Tesla over reports that video games came be activated on the front touch screens while the cars are being driven, according to an investigation summary posted online this week.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration opened the investigation, referred to as a preliminary evaluation, into an estimated 580,000 vehicles Tuesday. Officials expressed concern that the features “may present a distraction to the driver.”

“This [evaluation] has been opened to evaluate the driver distraction potential of Tesla ‘Passenger Play’ while the vehicle is being driven,” the report said, referring to the name of the feature. Investigators “will evaluate aspects of the feature, including the frequency and use scenarios of Tesla ‘Passenger Play.’”

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The office said the issue is present in Tesla Models 3, S, X and Y and that game play has been available to drivers since December 2020. Games range from solitaire to more advanced titles.

“Prior to this time, gameplay was enabled only when the vehicle was in Park,” the report said.

The probe brings a new measure of scrutiny to Tesla’s tech-packed cars, rooted in mounting safety concerns: that drivers making use of the features will take their eyes off the road and cause crashes or worse. The agency is also investigating the company’s Autopilot driver-assistance system over reports of a dozen crashes involving parked emergency vehicles while the system was activated. And NHTSA also over the summer began requiring companies such as Tesla and deployers of autonomous vehicles to report on crashes involving their systems within a day of learning of such incidents.

NHTSA’s statements on the video game issue tied back to the concerns about abuse of automated systems.

Tesla has two driving functions that minimize interaction from drivers, although they are supposed to be paying attention at all times. One, Autopilot, is in wide use to control cars primarily on highways, while so-called Full Self-Driving is in use by thousands of drivers in beta mode on city and residential streets.

The New York Times reported on Tesla drivers’ ability to play video games while driving earlier this month. Tesla did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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“NHTSA based its decision on reports that Tesla’s gameplay functionality is visible from the driver's seat and can be enabled while driving the vehicle,” agency spokeswoman Lucia Sanchez said, while noting that “no commercially available motor vehicles today can drive themselves.”

Her comments reflected the prospect of increased scrutiny as Tesla pushes technology it dubs Full Self-Driving into the cabin, a driver-assistance feature that helps navigate the vehicles on city and residential streets with an attentive driver at all times.

“Certain advanced driving assistance features can promote safety by helping drivers avoid crashes and mitigate the severity of crashes that occur, but as with all technologies and equipment on motor vehicles, drivers must use them correctly and responsibly,” she said. “NHTSA is empowered with robust enforcement tools to protect the public, investigate potential safety issues, and we will act when we find evidence of noncompliance or an unreasonable risk to safety.”

Tesla has tried to make video games part of the vehicle experience, as CEO Elon Musk has sought to put some of the cars’ computing power toward immersive experiences. In a job posting for a games engineer on its website, the company boasts about its ambitions.

“Our goal is to set the bar for what video games in a car can be; much of this is uncharted territory having never been done before,” the company wrote.

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