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Tesla to pull plug on letting drivers play video games after federal investigation

<i>Spencer Platt/Getty Images</i><br/>Tesla is under federal investigation for letting drivers play video games.
Getty Images
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Tesla is under federal investigation for letting drivers play video games.

By Chris Isidore, CNN Business

Tesla reversed course Thursday and will no longer allow video games to be played on its cars’ touchscreens when they are in motion, bowing to an investigation of the feature by federal safety regulators.

“Following the opening of a preliminary evaluation of Tesla’s ‘Passenger Play,’ Tesla informed the agency that it is changing the functionality of this feature,” said a statement from a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration spokesperson late Thursday. “In a new software update, ‘Passenger Play’ will now be locked and unusable when the vehicle is in motion.”

The documentation for the investigation, disclosed Wednesday by the NHTSA, said the feature, known as “Passenger Play,” has been available to drivers since December 2020. The games appear on the large touchscreen in the center of the dashboard. While the name suggests it is intended to be played by passengers, nothing prevented drivers from playing while the car is being driven, according to the documentation associated with the investigation.

Prior to December 2020, gameplay was enabled only when the vehicle was in park, the NHTSA investigation document said. Even if the game is being played by a passenger and not the driver, it “may distract the driver and increase the risk of a crash,” according to NHTSA.

The agency’s investigation generated widespread media coverage on Thursday ahead of Tesla’s agreement to change the games’ settings.

“NHTSA constantly assesses how manufacturers identify and safeguard against distraction hazards that may arise due to faults, misuse, or intended use of convenience technologies, including infotainment screens,” the agency said.

Tesla has been pushing the envelope in providing driver assist features that allow its cars to slow down, speed up, and even change lanes without active participation from the driver.

The company cautions that drivers using such features, known as “Autopilot” and “FSD,” for full-self driving, must stay alert and keep their hands on the wheel. But Tesla has been criticized for making it easier for drivers to not pay attention, as well as for a number of crashes involving cars in Autopilot mode.

The NHTSA is currently investigating Tesla for at least 11 accidents involving cars using its Autopilot or other self-driving features that collided with emergency vehicles when coming upon the scene of an earlier crash. Those 11 accidents were responsible for 17 injuries and one death, according to the agency.

US regulators are highlighting distracted driving as a major safety hazard on American roads. NHTSA estimates that 3,142 people were killed in accidents involving distracted drivers in 2019.

The Passenger Play probe started following a complaint filed in November by an unidentified Tesla owner. The complaint said that the feature allows video game play and web browsing while the car is being driven.

“The video games are allegedly restricted only to passengers. Web browsing is available to anyone at any time,” said the complaint. “Why is a manufacturer allowed to create an inherently distracting live video which takes over 2/3 of the screen which the driver relies on for all vehicle information? NHTSA needs to prohibit all live video in the front seat and all live interactive web browsing while the car is in motion. Creating a dangerous distraction for the driver is recklessly negligent.”

Tesla, which rarely responds to questions from the media, did not respond to a request for comment on the probe or the video game feature.

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