U.S. Regulators 'Crack Down' on Tesla for Letting Customers Play Video Games

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has launched a formal investigation into 580,000 Tesla vehicles sold since 2017 that allowed customers to play video games inside the vehicle. The company has allowed users to play a variety of games while vehicles are in park, some of which allowed drivers to use the steering wheels and pedals as part of the controls, for quite some time. But an over-the-air software update permitted a few of them to be launched while the car was in motion by the passenger in the summer of 2021. Called “Passenger Play,” the service was limited to games that only used touchscreen controls.

It’s since been axed, however, regulators have taken an interest following some manufactured outrage. The NHTSA has faulted the feature as part of the ongoing distracted-driving problem in an attempt to link it to its crusade against Autopilot. The agency has launched a preliminary investigation into 580,000 Tesla Model 3, S, X, and Y vehicles to determine if they’re attention-sucking deathtraps.

It’s difficult for me to see much purpose in regulating something like Passenger Play when drivers could literally whip out their phones and play literally any mobile game they want while driving. But if this is a matter of the screen itself being distracting, then regulators need to take a macro view of the whole industry. Practically every manufacturer under the sun now offers gigantic touchscreens with less-than-intuitive interfaces that force drivers to take their eyes off the road to do something as simple as tweaking the radio station or flicking on the seat warmer. Many also offer advanced driving aids that studies have shown encourage operators to become more easily distracted behind the wheel.

The NHTSA said it was operating from reports stating that Tesla’s “gameplay functionality is visible from the driver’s seat and can be enabled while driving the vehicle,” requiring an investigation. This appears to have stemmed primarily from a New York Times piece showing that Sky Force Reloaded, The Battle of Polytopia, and Solitaire are all playable on the center touchscreen while vehicles were in motion. However, whoever is playing those games is required to confirm that they’re the passenger with a quick tap of the I-AM-A-PASSENGER button before they’ll launch.

Meanwhile, very little has been said by regulators regarding other applications Tesla allowed customers to activate while driving even before the Passenger Play update — including the touchscreen drawing and in-car karaoke apps. Seems like an oversight for an agency that said it was committed to “ensuring the highest safety standards on the nation’s roadways” this week.

I’m not exactly known for being the biggest Tesla fan. But this seems like a big waste of the NHTSA’s time and energy. While I’ll be the first person to admit that Autopilot can and does get dangerously abused by users, similar assertions can be made about other companies’ advanced driving systems and federal regulators rarely seem to make that leap. Perhaps Tesla is indeed the biggest offender, thanks to misleading marketing. But distracted driving is a problem that has been accelerated by trends being pursued by an entire industry that spend the last decade promising self-driving cars would be here by now.

According to Reuters, the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) has already praised the NHTSA for looking into something that’s been deactivated. On Wednesday, it said it was elated to see the agency launching the safety investigation into Tesla and wanted to “remind all drivers to be alert and focused on the road when you’re behind the wheel.”

From Reuters:

The [NHTSA] noted earlier in December that distracted driving accounts for a significant number of U.S. road deaths – 3,142 in 2019 alone. Safety advocates have said official figures underestimate the problem because not all drivers involved in crashes later admit they were distracted.

The Times said the Tesla update added three games – Solitaire, a jet fighter and conquest strategy scenario – and said that vehicles have warnings reading: “Playing while the car is in motion is only for passengers.”

The paper said the game feature asks for confirmation that the player is a passenger, though a driver could still play simply by pressing a button.

In 2013, NHTSA issued guidelines to encourage automakers “to factor safety and driver distraction-prevention into their designs and adoption of infotainment devices in vehicles.”

Nobody really seems to be heeding that advice, however. An increasing number of vehicle controls are now hidden behind layers of menus in touchscreen interfaces and infotainment systems continue getting larger. Meanwhile, aftermarket companies selling components that allow you to play video (or video games) while a vehicle is in motion have existed in abundance for decades. Hell, I remember a brief period where you could use Uconnect to play DVDs with the car in drive before Dodge realized it had unintentionally left that particular digital backdoor open. Mercedes-Benz even had to recall a couple hundred EQS and S-Class sedans this month over an alleged error that allowed dashboard video playback while driving.

I understand that the NHTSA’s vendetta against Autopilot is important. But it’s starting to look like it has an ax to grind against Tesla for doing more-or-less the same stuff every other automaker is guilty of. How, exactly, is a gaming app intended for passengers any more dangerous than connectivity services that allow the driver to book a restaurant reservation on the fly?

[Image: Virrage Images/Shutterstock]

Matt Posky
Matt Posky

A staunch consumer advocate tracking industry trends and regulation. Before joining TTAC, Matt spent a decade working for marketing and research firms based in NYC. Clients included several of the world’s largest automakers, global tire brands, and aftermarket part suppliers. Dissatisfied with the corporate world and resentful of having to wear suits everyday, he pivoted to writing about cars. Since then, that man has become an ardent supporter of the right-to-repair movement, been interviewed on the auto industry by national radio broadcasts, driven more rental cars than anyone ever should, participated in amateur rallying events, and received the requisite minimum training as sanctioned by the SCCA. Handy with a wrench, Matt grew up surrounded by Detroit auto workers and managed to get a pizza delivery job before he was legally eligible. He later found himself driving box trucks through Manhattan, guaranteeing future sympathy for actual truckers. He continues to conduct research pertaining to the automotive sector as an independent contractor and has since moved back to his native Michigan, closer to where the cars are born. A contrarian, Matt claims to prefer understeer — stating that front and all-wheel drive vehicles cater best to his driving style.

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  • DAC17 DAC17 on Dec 22, 2021

    This whole thing is ridiculous. Cars are made to be driven; not to be playing games in. We wonder why distracted driving occurs regularly. Anybody think this makes things better? Thank God I'm not 30 any more...

    • Dantes_inferno Dantes_inferno on Dec 27, 2021

      >We wonder why distracted driving occurs regularly. You're dealing with an increasing "driving" populace with the attention span of a fruit fly. A recipe for disaster.

  • Roberto Esponja Roberto Esponja on Dec 23, 2021

    Just a quick comment on this: "The LX platform Dodge builds the Charger on has roots in the 1990s Mercedes-Benz E-Class" The only thing that the LX platform shared with the E-Class was rear suspension componentry, which was retired with the 2011 LX update. Planning and engineering for the LX platform was well under way prior to the regrettable "merger of equals".

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