The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has launched an investigation into Tesla’s “Elon Mode,” a feature that reportedly allows the driver-assistance system to take control for an extended period.
The NHTSA issued a letter to Tesla on July 26, requesting data related to its Autopilot feature. This letter was made public on the US Department of Transportation website recently.
Going overboard with fun
The NHTSA’s concern stems from the possibility that the Autopilot configuration could be activated to control the vehicle without notifying the driver to keep their hands on the steering wheel. This could lead to drivers becoming less engaged and attentive while using the system, potentially compromising safety.
Under the Autopilot system, drivers are expected to maintain their hands on the steering wheel, even when the driver-assistance features are active. If the driver removes their hands, a symbol on the vehicle’s touchscreen blinks as a reminder.
However, a software hacker discovered that if the driver ignores this reminder and continues driving without their hands on the wheel, the driver-assistance features could be turned off for the remainder of the drive. This discovery was made public through a video posted on YouTube.
How ‘Elon Mode’ was found
Philip Koopman, an automotive safety researcher and associate professor of computer engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, expressed concern over hidden features that could compromise safety. He noted that such elements have no place in production software.
The NHTSA is already investigating several Tesla crashes involving stationary emergency vehicles, and this new investigation adds to the scrutiny the company is facing. The agency emphasized the importance of driver attention and monitoring systems that accurately assess drivers’ trust in technology.
The NHTSA has given Tesla until August 25 to respond to the order, which includes providing all relevant documentation. Failure to comply could result in civil penalties of up to $26,315 daily. In response, Tesla requested confidential treatment, leaving the public unaware of the details. It remains to be seen how the NHTSA will address Tesla’s response.