The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has requested information from Tesla regarding recent changes to its Full Self-Driving (FSD) beta autonomous driving system.
In a letter sent last month, the NHTSA cited safety concerns over updates that enable hands-free driving without continuous driver supervision. The agency is demanding details on the new features and their impact on safety.
Specifically, the NHTSA letter references recent videos showing Tesla vehicles operating autonomously for extended periods without any torque detection on the steering wheel. This so-called “zero torque” capability removes the need for drivers to touch the wheel periodically.
The NHTSA worries these updates may encourage misuse of Autopilot and distracted driving. The letter states:
“This could result in a relaxation of the driver’s engagement in dynamic driving tasks, potentially leading to driver inattention and an inability to properly supervise the Autopilot system.”
As a result, the agency has ordered Tesla to provide exhaustive information on FSD beta, including:
- Exact dates of zero torque capability rollouts
- Steps required to activate and deactivate the feature
- Any changes to Autopilot monitoring and alert systems
- Rationale for pushing updates to customer cars beyond test vehicles
- Details on real-world incidents with new features enabled
Tesla must comply with the order or face potential fines up to $131.6 million. However, the company has not yet publicly responded.
While arguably distracting at times, continuous steering wheel nags are not necessarily required for safe hands-free driving, as systems like Ford’s BlueCruise demonstrate.
The NHTSA’s concern stems from the increased autonomy afforded by the zero torque update combined with FSD beta’s unfinished state requiring constant human oversight.
As Tesla continues rapidly iterating its FSD software, regulatory scrutiny will only intensify. For now, the company must provide satisfactory answers addressing the NHTSA’s apprehension about reduced driver engagement.
Ensuring safety remains paramount. While FSD technology holds immense promise, responsible development and transparency with regulators is crucial as capabilities evolve.
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