US agency shuts down Tesla autopilot ‘nag reduction device’

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said it would stop the sale of the Autopilot Buddy

FILE- In this April 15, 2018, file photo the sun shines off the rear deck of a roadster on a Tesla dealer's lot in the south Denver suburb of Littleton, Colo. Actor Mary McCormack has shared video of her husband's Tesla car shooting flames while in Southern California traffic. McCormack said in an accompanying tweet Friday that there was "no accident" and the incident was "out of the blue." Sheriff's Lt. William Nash in West Hollywood said Saturday, June 16, 2018 that deputies saw smoke coming from the electric vehicle and then fire. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski, File)
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The Autopilot Buddy is marketed as a “nag reduction device” that can fool Tesla’s semi-autonomous driving system to circumvent a warning when a driver’s hands aren’t on the steering wheel, but United States regulators have another term for the product: “unacceptable”.

The US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration on Tuesday said it was ordering the aftermarket device maker to stop selling the Autopilot Buddy because it could put drivers and others at risk.

A letter sent by NHTSA to the company, identified on the website as Dolder, Falco and Reese Partners, orders it to respond by June 29 and to certify that distribution and marketing of the product has ended. The company is not affiliated with Tesla.

The Autopilot Buddy website promises to reduce Tesla’s “nagging reminders” to drivers that they need to put their hands on the wheel in order to allow customers to “enjoy autopilot”.

Despite those promises, the NHTSA found the product "is intended to circumvent motor vehicle safety and driver attentiveness", NHTSA deputy administrator Heidi King said. "By preventing the safety system from warning the driver to return hands to the wheel, this product disables an important safeguard, and could put customers and other road users at risk."

A Tesla spokesman said the company supports NHTSA’s action to force the company to end sales of the device.

While fully self-driving cars are still in development, several carmakers including Tesla and General Motors have developed suites of technology that automatically keep cars in their lanes and follow a vehicle ahead at a safe distance.

The companies require drivers to keep their hands on the steering wheel, even if the cars are at times largely driving themselves. In the case of the Tesla, the system monitors steering wheel movements to assess whether the driver is engaged.

Despite the Autopilot Buddy website’s assertion that the hands-off warnings are an impediment to owners, it also maintains a disclaimer saying: “This is not intended to be a hands-off device, your hands must remain on the wheel as directed by Tesla’s terms of ‘Autosteer’ user agreement.”

A spate of crashes involving Teslas has thrust the issue of semi-autonomous driving features into the news. The National Transportation Safety Board is looking at a March 23 accident in California in which the system did not detect the driver’s hands on the wheel before it struck a highway barrier. The man, 38, died in the crash.

Autopilot Buddy’s website currently discloses that it is no longer taking orders inside the US. Dolder, Falco and Reese is registered to Carl Reese in California. A phone message and email to Reese asking for comment were not immediately returned.