Tesla is allowing some drivers to use its Autopilot driver-assistance system for extended periods without keeping their hands on the wheel, a development that has raised concerns among U.S. safety regulators.

NHTSA has ordered Tesla to tell the agency how many vehicles have received the software update to make that happen, and is seeking more information about the electric automaker’s plans to expand distribution.

“NHTSA is concerned that this feature is being introduced into consumer vehicles, and now that the public knows it exists, more drivers may try to activate it,” said John Donaldson, the agency’s acting general counsel. Letter to Tesla dated July 26 reads The information was posted on the agency’s website. “The resulting relaxation of controls designed to ensure the driver remains engaged in dynamic driving tasks may result in increased driver inattention and the inability of the driver to properly supervise Autopilot.”

Earlier Wednesday, someone left a message seeking comment from Tesla. “If you haven’t tried Tesla Autopilot, you don’t know how good it is,” Tesla CEO Elon Musk wrote on X (formerly Twitter) on Wednesday.

the government has Investigate Autopilot Hit parked emergency vehicles on the highway, as well as hit motorcycles and cross tow trailers.it 2021 to start a formal investigation Since 2016, investigators have been dispatched to investigate 35 Tesla accidents that may have involved some parts of Autopilot. At least 17 people died.

Autopilot and the more complex “Full Self-Driving” systems cannot drive themselves and drivers must be ready to intervene at any time, Tesla said. Autopilot generally keeps the car in its lane and at a certain distance from objects ahead.

The special order asks Tesla to describe differences in software updates that reduce or eliminate situations where Autopilot tells the driver to apply pressure to the steering wheel, “including when Autopilot is allowed to operate without prompting for torque, and any A warning or beep is presented to the driver.”

The letter to Dinna Eskin, Tesla’s senior legal officer, asked the Austin, Texas-based company to explain why it installed the software update and how it could prove which consumers got it.

It also seeks crash and near miss reports involving vehicles with the software update installed. “Your responses should include any plans to enable the subject software in consumer vehicles within the next calendar year,” Donaldson wrote in the letter.

Tesla executives have until Aug. 25 to respond to the sworn letter, or the agency will take the matter to the Justice Department, which could fine it more than $131 million.

Tesla’s driver monitoring system has been criticized by safety advocates and the National Transportation Safety Board for letting drivers check when Autopilot is engaged.

After investigating three crashes involving Autopilot, the NTSB recommended in 2017 that Tesla and five other automakers limit the use of semi-autonomous systems on restricted-access divided highways and enhance their driver-monitoring systems .

All automakers responded, except Tesla. In 2021, Jennifer Homendy, chair of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), sent a letter to Musk calling on him to act on the recommendations. Musk never responded, the NTSB said.

The NTSB investigates crashes, but there is no regulator. It can only make recommendations to automakers or other federal agencies such as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Most other automakers use infrared cameras to keep drivers focused. Some Teslas have recently been equipped with cameras to monitor drivers.

Jack Fisher, head of auto testing at Consumer Reports, said Tesla may have activated the cameras to monitor the driver, which could be the reason for the relaxed steering wheel notifications.

But during the last Autopilot test in 2022, the cameras didn’t do anything, and older Teslas don’t have them, Fisher said. However, the cameras do monitor the driver when using “full self-driving,” Fisher said.

Cameras do a better job of keeping drivers focused than steering wheel monitors, he said.

Tesla owners have called the alert about hands on the wheel “annoying.”

When Autopilot first rolled out in 2015, it alerted drivers if they didn’t feel torque on the steering wheel for about three minutes, Fisher said. That time has since been reduced to 30 seconds, but it changes between software updates, he said. “It seemed to be jumping around all the time,” he said.

Consumer Reports also found that it was easy to bypass Tesla’s steering wheel monitoring system.

NHTSA earlier this month Investigators sent to plane crash in Virginia One of the Teslas, apparently on autopilot, slid under a towing trailer, killing the driver.

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