Tesla to remove video game feature in moving cars after US pressure

Auto safety agency says 'Passenger Play' video game could distract drivers

Drivers are capable of playing games on the giant screen on a Tesla car Model 3. AFP
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Under pressure from US car safety regulators, Tesla agreed on Thursday to stop allowing video games to be played on central touch screens while vehicles are moving.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) says the company will send out a software update so the function, “Passenger Play”, will be locked and will not work while vehicles are in motion.

The move comes one day after the agency announced it would open a formal investigation into distracted driving concerns over the video games, with the preliminary evaluation focusing on certain 2017-2022 Tesla Model 3, S, X and Y vehicles.

An agency spokeswoman said in a statement on Thursday that the change came after regulators discussed concerns about the system with Tesla. The first update went out on Wednesday as part of Tesla's holiday software release and the rest of the vehicles should receive it on Thursday.

The agency said its investigation into the feature will continue even with the update.

It was not clear whether NHTSA will require Tesla to do a formal recall alongside the update.

“The Vehicle Safety Act prohibits manufacturers from selling vehicles with defects posing unreasonable risks to safety, including technologies that distract drivers from driving safely,” NHTSA’s statement said.

The agency added it also assesses how manufacturers identify and guard against distraction hazards due to misuse or intended use of screens and other convenience technology.

The NHTSA said it has “confirmed that this capability has been available since December 2020 in Tesla 'Passenger Play'-equipped vehicles”. Before then, the game feature “was enabled only when the vehicle was in Park".

In a statement on Wednesday, the agency said it was “committed to ensuring the highest safety standards on the nation’s roadways".

The Governors Highway Safety Association said on Wednesday it was pleased with NHTSA's Tesla safety investigation “and [wants] to remind all drivers to be alert and focused on the road when you're behind the wheel”.

The NHTSA said it would “evaluate aspects of the feature, including the frequency and use scenarios of Tesla 'Passenger Play'."

This month, The New York Times highlighted the game feature, prompting NHTSA to say it was in discussions with Tesla about its concerns.

The agency noted earlier in December that distracted driving accounts for a significant number of US road deaths — 3,142 in 2019 alone. Safety advocates have said official figures underestimate the problem because not all drivers involved in crashes later admit they were distracted.

The Times said the Tesla update added three games — Solitaire, a jet fighter and conquest strategy scenario — and said that vehicles have warnings reading: “Playing while the car is in motion is only for passengers.”

The paper said the game feature asks for confirmation that the player is a passenger, though a driver could still play simply by pressing a button.

In 2013, the NHTSA issued guidelines to encourage carmakers “to factor safety and driver distraction-prevention into their designs and adoption of infotainment devices in vehicles".

The guidelines “recommend that in-vehicle devices be designed so that they cannot be used by the driver to perform inherently distracting secondary tasks while driving”, the agency said.

This August, the agency opened a safety investigation into 765,000 Tesla vehicles over its driver-assistance system Autopilot after a series of crashes involving the system and parked emergency vehicles.

A preliminary evaluation is a first step before the NHTSA decides whether to upgrade a probe to an engineering analysis, which must happen before the agency can demand a recall.

The NHTSA said it had received a complaint in November about the game feature from a Tesla Model 3 driver in Oregon, who said: “Creating a dangerous distraction for the driver is recklessly negligent.”

On November 29, Daimler's Mercedes-Benz recalled 227 US vehicles — 2021 model year S580, 2022 EQS450, EQS580 and S500 — because the vehicle infotainment systems “might allow activation of the television and internet display while driving, causing a distraction for the driver".

Updated: December 23, 2021, 9:04 PM