Tesla faces scrutiny over ‘Elon mode’ for Autopilot

Tesla, the electric car maker, has been ordered by the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to provide extensive data about its driver assistance and driver monitoring systems, and a once secret configuration for these known as “Elon mode”. The NHTSA is concerned that this feature could lead to driver inattention and failure to properly supervise Autopilot, which has been involved in several crashes with emergency vehicles.

What is ‘Elon mode’?

According to a CNBC report, “Elon mode” is a configuration that allows Tesla drivers to use the company’s driver assistance systems, such as Autopilot, Full Self-Driving (FSD) or FSD Beta, without the so-called “nag” that normally prompts drivers to keep their hands on the steering wheel. If drivers leave the steering wheel unattended for too long, the “nag” escalates to a beeping noise. If the driver still does not take the wheel at that point, the vehicle can disable the use of its advanced driver assistance features for the rest of the drive or longer.

Tesla faces scrutiny over ‘Elon mode’ for Autopilot
Tesla faces scrutiny over ‘Elon mode’ for Autopilot

With “Elon mode” enabled, Tesla can eliminate this “nag” and let drivers operate the vehicle in Autopilot for extended periods without any steering wheel input. The feature is named after Tesla CEO Elon Musk, who is known for his ambitious and sometimes controversial vision for autonomous driving. The feature was reportedly discovered by a hacker who accessed Tesla’s software code and shared it online.

Why is NHTSA concerned?

In a letter and special order sent to Tesla on July 26, NHTSA’s acting chief counsel John Donaldson wrote:

“NHTSA is concerned about the safety impacts of recent changes to Tesla’s driver monitoring system. This concern is based on available information suggesting that it may be possible for vehicle owners to change Autopilot’s driver monitoring configurations to allow the driver to operate the vehicle in Autopilot for extended periods without Autopilot prompting the driver to apply torque to the steering wheel.”

The agency also noted that it is concerned that this feature was introduced to consumer vehicles and, now that the existence of this feature is known to the public, more drivers may attempt to activate it. The resulting relaxation of controls designed to ensure that the driver remain engaged in the dynamic driving task could lead to greater driver inattention and failure of the driver to properly supervise Autopilot.

The NHTSA asked Tesla to provide detailed information about how many vehicles and drivers have this configuration enabled, how it affects the performance and safety of Autopilot and FSD, how it is tested and validated, and how it complies with federal motor vehicle safety standards. The agency also requested data on any crashes or injuries related to this feature. Tesla was given a deadline of Aug. 25 to furnish all the information demanded by the agency, and replied on time but they requested and their response has been granted confidential treatment by NHTSA.

How does Tesla compare to other automakers?

Tesla’s handbook for drivers warns them to keep their hands on the steering wheel while using driver-assist features like Autopilot and FSD. The company claims that these features are not fully autonomous and require constant supervision by the driver. However, some Tesla owners have been caught abusing or misusing these features, such as sleeping, reading, or watching videos while driving.

Tesla has faced criticism for not implementing a robust driver monitoring system that includes cameras and other sensors to ensure drivers keep their eyes on the road. Some other automakers, such as Ford and General Motors, have introduced hands-free systems that rely on such technology and are only available on certain roads, such as divided highways.

Tesla has also been under investigation by NHTSA for over a dozen incidents involving Tesla vehicles with Autopilot that crashed into stationary emergency vehicles. The agency is expected to wrap up its probe soon. In addition, NHTSA is looking into issues with Tesla’s seatbelts, steering wheels, and “phantom braking” triggered by the driver assist.

Tesla has not publicly commented on the NHTSA’s order or its investigation. The company has previously defended its safety record and technology, saying that its vehicles are designed to reduce the likelihood and severity of crashes.

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