The Verge:

Tesla is in trouble with the federal government. Again.

A newly discovered version of Autopilot that allows drivers to operate the advanced driver-assist feature without applying any torque to the steering wheel — a long sought-after feature by Tesla drivers and one used by several other automakers as well — has caught the attention of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

In a July 26th letter (first reported by Bloomberg), NHTSA ordered Tesla to respond to a list of questions about the feature or face an escalating series of fines. The company was ordered to respond by August 25th; it’s unclear whether Tesla complied.

NHTSA ordered Tesla to respond to a list of questions about the feature or face an escalating series of fines

In the letter, NHTSA says it is concerned that any feature that allows drivers to remove their hands from the steering wheel without adequate driver monitoring could prove to be a safety risk.

NHTSA is concerned that this feature was introduced to consumer vehicles and, now that the existence of this feature is known to the public, more drivers may attempt to activate it. 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 letter was filed in the same docket as NHTSA’s two-year investigation into over a dozen incidents involving Tesla vehicles with Autopilot that crashed into stationary emergency vehicles. That investigation is expected to wrap up relatively soon. Regulators are also investigating issues with Tesla’s seatbelts, steering wheels, and “phantom braking” triggered by the driver assist.

Tesla’s handbook for drivers warns them to keep their hands on the steering wheel while using driver-assist features like Autopilot and Full Self-Driving. If drivers take their hands off the wheel for too long, a series of audio alerts begin to chime — annoying many Tesla owners. They have urged Tesla CEO Elon Musk to follow other automakers in introducing a truly hands-free system, like Ford’s BlueCruise or General Motors’ Super Cruise.

Those systems rely on a robust driver monitoring system that includes cameras and other sensors to ensure drivers keep their eyes on the road. And they are only available to use on certain roads, like divided highways. Tesla allows its customers to use Full Self-Driving (FSD), for example, on local roads, but still requires their hands to be on the steering wheel.

Earlier this year, a hacker discovered a version of FSD that doesn’t require the driver to apply force to the steering wheel while using it. The hacker called the version “Elon Mode” after Musk has shown himself using a version of FSD that also appears to be hands-free. It’s unclear whether NHTSA is referring to this version of FSD in its letter to Tesla.

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MuskWire TLDR:

Tesla is facing scrutiny from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) over a newly discovered version of its Autopilot feature. This version allows drivers to operate the advanced driver-assist feature without applying any torque to the steering wheel, a sought-after feature by Tesla drivers and other automakers. In a letter dated July 26th, NHTSA ordered Tesla to respond to a list of questions about the feature or face fines. The agency is concerned that any feature allowing drivers to remove their hands from the wheel without adequate monitoring could pose a safety risk. NHTSA is worried that more drivers may attempt to use this feature now that its existence is known to the public, leading to driver inattention and the failure to supervise Autopilot properly. The letter was filed in the same docket as NHTSA’s ongoing investigation into incidents involving Tesla vehicles with Autopilot crashing into stationary emergency vehicles. The investigation is expected to conclude soon. Regulators are also looking into issues with Tesla’s seatbelts, steering wheels, and “phantom braking” triggered by the driver assist. Tesla’s driver handbook advises keeping hands on the wheel while using driver-assist features, but many Tesla owners find the audio alerts annoying. They have urged CEO Elon Musk to introduce a truly hands-free system like Ford’s BlueCruise or General Motors’ Super Cruise, which rely on robust driver monitoring systems. Tesla allows customers to use Full Self-Driving (FSD) on local roads but still requires hands on the wheel. Earlier this year, a hacker discovered a version of FSD called “Elon Mode” that doesn’t require steering wheel torque. It is unclear if NHTSA’s letter refers to this version of FSD.