Tesla updated its software allowing vehicle occupants to play video games on the center touchscreen while in motion, raising questions about safety and driver distraction. Previously, video games were only playable while the vehicle was in park.
But according to The New York Times, an over-the-air software update was pushed out last summer enabling the ability to launch some games regardless of whether the car was stationary or not, raising serious concerns about safety.
The Verge confirmed in a Tesla Model 3 that Sky Force Reloaded, Solitaire, and The Battle of Polytopia are playable on the center touchscreen while the vehicle is in motion. A notification asks the player to confirm they aren’t the driver before launching the game, but the message is hardly a deterrent. A driver could easily tap “I AM A PASSENGER” and play a complex action game like Sky Force while in motion.
Some interactive apps in the car worked in motion even before the update, including the drawing pad and the Karaoke mode in music — which also warns the driver not to participate.
A Model 3 owner told the Times that he had filed a complaint to the NHTSA upon discovery of the games being playable while driving in his car. That complaint won’t be a first. Tesla currently has 59 complaints from owners regarding the Model 3.
A spokesperson for NHTSA told Reuters that it was “discussing” the issue of playable video games in moving cars with the company. “Distraction-affected crashes are a concern, particularly in vehicles equipped with an array of convenience technologies such as entertainment screens,” the spokesperson told Reuters. “We are aware of driver concerns and are discussing the feature with the manufacturer.”
Tesla has a reputation for regularly skirting safety rules and ignoring regulator recommendations for improvements. The company offers a version of its Level 2 advanced driver assist system called “Full Self-Driving,” which does not make its vehicles autonomous and requires drivers to stay vigilant while in use.
The US government has taken a renewed interest in Tesla, recently announcing that it was investigating incidents involving Tesla cars operating Autopilot that have crashed into parked emergency vehicles.
NHTSA is also seeking more information from Tesla about the growing public beta test of FSD, the recently launched “Safety Score” evaluation process for entering the program, and the nondisclosure agreements Tesla was making participants sign up until recently.
Touchscreens in vehicles are quickly becoming the norm as manufacturers continue to remove tactile buttons and knobs from their vehicles. Many vehicles are becoming more dangerous as a result. According to a 2019 study, drivers can get distracted and look away from the road for up to 40 seconds per task.
Tesla has pioneered the use of over-the-air software updates in the auto industry, using smartphone-style updates to add features like improved driver assistance to silly Easter eggs like “James Bond mode” to its electric vehicles. The company has also rolled out a whole suite of video games it calls Tesla Arcade (we tried it out on a Model 3 back in 2019).
Tesla has started using an interior camera to monitor drivers for its Full Self-Driving beta program, which allows drivers to use automatic steering, lane-keeping, and adaptive cruise control on local, non-highway streets. But the vast majority of Tesla vehicles do not use any cameras to track driver eye movements to ensure they are keeping their attention on the road.