The federal government’s main auto safety regulator said on Wednesday that it had opened an investigation into a feature in Teslas that allows drivers to play games on a dashboard touch screen while the car is in motion.
The investigation, by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, is the latest of several moves that regulators have taken in recent months regarding safety issues in cars made by Tesla, the dominant electric carmaker and the world’s most valuable automaker. In August the safety agency opened a broad investigation into Tesla’s Autopilot system, which can accelerate and brake a car on its own, after cars using it crashed into parked fire trucks, police cars and other emergency vehicles at least 11 times. Those accidents resulted in one death and several serious injuries.
The New York Times reported earlier this month on the video feature, which Tesla calls Passenger Play, and its potential to distract drivers. The agency’s investigation suggests that it is taking a more aggressive stand after years of doing little to look into what many safety experts characterize as glaring flaws and gaps in Tesla’s approach.
“We need NHTSA to be more active and robust, so hopefully this is the start of a more active agency,” said Jonathan Adkins, executive director of the Governor’s Highway Safety Association.
The video game inquiry covers about 580,000 cars and sport utility vehicles from model years 2017 through 2022. At least three games can be played on the large touch screens mounted in the center of every Tesla — solitaire; a jet fighter game, Sky Force Reloaded; and The Battle of Polytopia: Moonrise, a conquest strategy game. Players are asked to confirm that they are not driving the car, but nothing prevents drivers from clicking through that question and playing the games.
“It’s unquestionably dangerous,” said Jason Levine, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, a consumer safety organization. “Even if it is only for passenger use, there’s no question it is distracting to a driver.”
In a document posted on its website, the safety agency appeared to agree with that view, saying the games “may distract the driver and increase the risk of a crash.”
Tesla did not respond to a request for comment.
The video game feature has been available since last December in some of the company’s vehicles, the safety agency said. “Prior to this time, gameplay was enabled only when the vehicle was in park,” it added.
The agency’s investigation of Tesla’s video games is not focused on Autopilot, but the regulator’s statement suggested that drivers could play games while using that system in the mistaken belief that the car was driving itself and that they need not pay attention to the road.
“NHTSA reminds the public that no commercially available motor vehicles today can drive themselves,” the agency said. “Certain advanced driving assistance features can promote safety by helping drivers avoid crashes and mitigate the severity of crashes that occur, but as with all technologies and equipment on motor vehicles, drivers must use them correctly and responsibly.”
Tesla instructs drivers to keep their hands on the wheel and pay attention to the road while using Autopilot. But some drivers appear to ignore that advice, according to videos posted on social media, accident reports and lawsuits filed by families of people killed in crashes involving Teslas using the system.
Safety experts have said Tesla has failed to install effective safeguards in its cars to ensure drivers keep their hands on the steering wheel and their eyes on the road while using Autopilot.
The company and its chief executive, Elon Musk, have also been criticized by safety experts for promoting Autopilot and a more advanced package of services, called Full Self-Driving, as self-driving systems. The company has allowed some owners to take to public roads to test Full Self-Driving, which Tesla has said cannot in fact drive its cars on its own despite its name.
The Issues With Tesla’s Autopilot System
Claims of safer driving. Tesla cars can use computers to handle aspects of driving, such as changing lanes. But there are concerns that this driver-assistance system, called Autopilot, is not safe.
A federal investigation. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is looking at Autopilot’s involvement in crashes, after 12 incidents involving Teslas crashing into parked emergency vehicles. The agency has the authority to force a recall or require new safety features.
Shortcuts with safety. Former Tesla employees said that the company’s chief executive, Elon Musk, insisted that autonomy could be achieved solely with cameras despite objections from some engineers.
Driver-assistance and crashes. A look inside one 2019 crash that killed a 22-year-old college student highlights how gaps in Tesla’s Autopilot system and distractions can have tragic consequences. In another incident that involved the death of a 15-year-old boy, after a Tesla hit a truck, a California family is suing the company, claiming the Autopilot system was partly responsible.
Tesla and Mr. Musk have long maintained that Autopilot makes its cars safer than others on the road, but they have also acknowledged that the system sometimes fails to see objects and other vehicles. The company has also maintained that drivers are responsible for any accidents that happen while the system is turned on.
But recently, the company did seek to make changes to its software through an over-the-air update to reduce the chances that its cars would crash into parked emergency vehicles. In October, the traffic safety agency pushed Tesla to initiate a formal recall when it issued the new software.
Separately, the agency is reviewing more than two dozen other accidents involving Teslas under Autopilot control. The agency has said eight of those crashes resulted in a total of 10 deaths since the first occurred in 2016.
The safety agency has itself been under fire for not taking safety issues with Tesla cars seriously. Some safety experts said the agency expressed little interest in investigations or issuing new regulations in recent years. The agency did not have a Senate-confirmed administrator during all four years of the Trump administration.
President Biden has nominated Steven Cliff, a former deputy executive director of the California Air Resources Board, to the position, but the Senate has not yet voted to confirm him. In testimony before a Senate committee last week, Dr. Cliff said he was “gravely concerned” about the rising number of traffic deaths and was “committed to turning this around.”
The safety agency recently estimated that more than 20,000 people were killed in traffic accidents in the first half of 2021, an increase of 18 percent from the first half of 2020. Some 38,630 people died in highway deaths last year, the most since 2007.
Gregory Schmidt contributed reporting.