Tesla has been sent a letter and a special order by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) requesting more information about the brand’s driver assistance systems following the existence of the “Elon Mode” configuration becoming public. Failure to answer comes with "civil penalties of up to $26,315 per day, up to a maximum penalty of $131,564,183 for a related series of daily violations," per NHTSA's special order.
The letter and special order (find the full.PDF here) are specifically tied to a hidden configuration found within Tesla’s Full-Self Driving and Autopilot driver assistance systems. This configuration, often referred to as Elon Mode, takes a more lax approach than normal to safety reminders.
Normally, Tesla's software pings you if you have your their hands off of the wheel for too long, with loud beeps that get louder until Autopilot automatically disengages on its own. It is a key function for Autopilot, the only thing really standing in the way of drivers texting behind the wheel, falling asleep, or worse.
The Elon Mode configuration prevents this from happening, allowing drivers to continue on without any intervention or involvement with the ADAS software. This is clearly not something that NHTSA is very keen on, and has requested a ton of specific info in relation to this mode. More specifically, the federal regulators are seeking hard numbers on how many vehicles are out there with access to these configurations, as well as how many have had Tesla’s authorization to access it.
Bloomberg was the first to discover the inquiries, which were made available on the NHTSA website on August 29. The letter and special order were initially sent to Tesla back on July 26. In the special order, NHTSA’s acting chief counsel John Donaldson stated:
“NHTSA is concerned about the safety impacts of recent changes to Tesla’s driver monitoring system. This concern is based on available information suggesting that it may be possible for vehicle owners to change Autopilot’s driver monitoring configurations to allow the driver to operate the vehicle in Autopilot for extended periods without Autopilot prompting the driver to apply torque to the steering wheel.”
Though we are just seeing this letter, the deadline just passed, as you can see in the text:
"You must respond in full to the requests in the enclosed Special Order by August 25, 2023," NHTSA writes in its letter. "If you do not timely, accurately, or completely respond to the Requests in the Special Order, you may be subject to civil penalties of up to $26,315 per day." The Special Order clarifies that this fine goes "up to a maximum penalty of $131,564,183 for a related series of daily violations. 49 U.S.C. §§ 30163(a)(1), 30165(a)(3); 49 C.F.R. § 578.6(a)(3). Falsifying or withholding information in response to this Special Order may lead to criminal penalties of a fine or imprisonment of up to 15 years, or both.
Tesla has always played fast and loose with the Feds, but only under the Biden Admin has NHTSA started leaning on Tesla's rather lackadaisical approach to safety. Will Tesla's freewheeling attitude to driver-assistance systems catch up to it?
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