Highway-safety regulators open probe into Tesla’s controversial in-car video game feature

December 23, 2021, 2:39 PM UTC

Highway safety regulators from the Department of Transportation has opened an investigation into a controversial video gaming feature found in over half a million Teslas on America’s roadways.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration opened what’s called “a preliminary evaluation” (PE) involving an estimated 580,000 cars across all four lines of Tesla‘s product range that offer the “Passenger Play” feature.

“This PE has been opened to evaluate the driver distraction potential of Tesla Passenger Play while the vehicle is being driven,” NHTSA wrote in a report dated from Tuesday, adding it would evaluate aspects such as the frequency and use of the feature. The probe will look at Teslas dating back to model year 2017.

The feature has come under fire of late, with the New York Times recently drawing attention to the issue. Earlier this month, Mercedes-Benz, a Tesla rival, recalled a couple hundred cars for a similar reason.

NHTSA, an arm of the Department of Transportation, noted however that no injuries or fatalities had been discovered thus far that could be traced to Tesla’s “Passenger Play.” 

Instead, it said the probe stemmed from a single complaint filed earlier this year that requested the traffic safety regulator prohibit all live video and interactive web browsing in the front seats while the car is in motion, arguing it was a “dangerous distraction” and “recklessly negligent.”  

‘Inherently distracting’

This isn’t the first time regulators have taken on Tesla during the Biden presidency.

In September, NHTSA sent a catalog of demands for information about its automated driving software, which has been linked to a number of fatalities. More recently, the regulator caused a stir after hiring a known Tesla critic as an advisor, with Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg casually dismissing Musk’s criticism the increased scrutiny is due to political bias.

The complaint that launched the new NHTSA probe pointed to heightened road safety risks, particularly in the popular Model 3 and Model Y cars. In both models, all relevant information is presented to the driver via a large touchscreen display in the middle of the dashboard, which also serves to operate “Passenger Play.”

“Why is a manufacturer allowed to create an inherently distracting live video which takes over two-thirds of the screen, which the driver relies on for all vehicle information?” the complaint read. “Tesla has no gauges above the steering wheel.”

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