Federal regulators want to know whether or not Tesla’s in-car video game system is distracting drivers. In a statement sent to Gizmodo, the National Highway Safety Administration (NHTSA) confirmed it’s launching a formal investigation into the company’s “Passenger Play” feature which some drivers have reportedly used to access games even while their vehicle is in motion.
In a statement sent to Gizmodo, the NHTSA confirmed the Preliminary Evaluation, first discovered by the Associated Press, will apply to all Tesla models created between 2017 and 2022, adding up to around 580,000 total vehicles. The investigation will evaluate the “driver distraction potential” of Passenger Play and evaluate scenarios where a driver could potentially interact with the feature.
The agency said it had already received one formal complaint related to the feature which they say has been accessible to drivers since December 2020. Teslas could play some games prior to that, but those were limited to while the vehicle was in park.
Tesla did not immediately respond to Gizmodo’s request for comment.
Though “Passenger Play,” as the name suggests, isn’t intended for people behind the wheel, videos have popped up on Youtube showing drivers easily interacting with the system even when the vehicle is in motion. According to a recent report in the New York Times, Tesla shipped an over-the-air update over the summer that added the games Solitaire, Sky Force Reloaded, and The Battle of Polytopia: Moonrise, all of which appear to be playable while in motion. Drivers are shown a warning when these games launch, but as of now there’s nothing preventing them from ignoring that and playing the games anyways.
Tesla’s decision to push forward with in-car games and other entertainment like video streaming comes despite long-standing National Highway Traffic Safety Administration guidelines recommending device makers design systems so they can’t be used by drivers to perform “inherently distracting secondary tasks while driving.”
The NHTSA’s probe comes just two weeks after the agency told Gizmodo it was aware of the feature and discussing it with Tesla. At the time, an NHTSA spokesperson said distraction-affected crashes are a top concern, adding that “The Vehicle Safety Act prohibits manufacturers from selling vehicles with design defects posing unreasonable risks to safety.”
Tesla’s investment in entertainment systems is intertwined with the company’s stated ambition of creating a vehicle that can one day drive itself and give back time that would otherwise be spent stuck in traffic. Musk expanded on this point earlier this year, claiming autonomous vehicle riders will one day “watch movies, play games, use the internet,” and do whatever else people do when they aren’t supposed to be focused on preventing a speeding block of aluminum from crashing into a median strip.
But that level of care-free distraction only works in Level 4 or above driverless systems, something Tesla itself has had to admit its Autopilot and Full Self Driving system are currently incapable of achieving. This point wasn’t lost on the NHTSA, which warned drivers to remain vigilant even in vehicles that use advanced driver assistance technologies
“NHTSA reminds the public that no commercially available motor vehicles today can drive themselves,” the agency said. “Every available vehicle requires the human driver to be in control at all times, and all State laws hold the human driver responsible for the operation of their vehicles. 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.”