Tesla is facing increased scrutiny from federal regulators over its driver-assistance system known as Autopilot, with investigators demanding to know if the electric carmaker has made it easier for drivers to take their hands off the wheel.
The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said in a letter posted to agency’s website on Tuesday it has become aware that Tesla “introduced an Autopilot configuration that, when enabled, allows drivers using Autopilot to operate their vehicles for extended periods without Autopilot prompting the driver to apply torque to the steering wheel.”
The agency’s letter, dated July 26, asked Tesla to respond by Aug. 25 to address the possibility the feature could be used to subvert efforts to keep drivers alert and ready to resume full control of the vehicle.
NHTSA confirmed in a second document posted Tuesday that the Elon Musk-led company submitted a confidential reply in time to meet that deadline. Tesla had no immediate response to a request for comment.
Tesla shares rose 7.7% Tuesday in New York, the most since March. The stock has more than doubled so far this year.
Typically, if a driver using Tesla’s Autopilot or Full Self-Driving feature takes their hands off the wheel, a visual symbol blinks on the car’s touchscreen. If they still don’t place their hands on the steering wheel, it escalates to a beeping noise, and if there’s still no action then the ability to use Autopilot can be disabled.
CNBC reported that this could be disabled back in June, after a software hacker said they’d discovered the secret configuration and dubbed it “Elon mode.”
The NHTSA’s letter said it was concerned drivers may attempt to activate this potentially dangerous mode since it was reported. Tesla has not publicly confirmed whether it exists.
“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 agency’s chief counsel said in the letter.
Tesla’s manual says that, when using Autopilot, drivers should “keep your hands on the steering wheel at all times.”
However, Elon Musk said last December that a software update would let some Tesla drivers disable the “nag,” but that it hadn’t yet been implemented. Earlier this month, Musk livestreamed himself driving a Tesla in Palo Alto, California while using a phone – a violation of Tesla’s own rules and California state law.
The ongoing Autopilot probe, which NHTSA launched in 2021, is among a series of investigations targeting Tesla, its products and Musk, its chief executive officer. Federal regulators are looking into possible problems with Tesla’s seatbelts, steering wheels and driver-assistance features.
The investigation was launched almost a dozen collisions involving first-responder vehicles and Tesla models which are believed to have had Autopilot software engaged.
Tesla has long said its driver-assistance software is not a substitute for a driver and that “currently enabled features do not make the vehicle autonomous.” But safety advocates criticize the company’s marketing of the system under the name “Autopilot” as misleading.
Includes information from Insider