Tesla facing new questions over safety after update allows drivers to play videogames

The inside of a Tesla electric car
It comes as the NHTSA continues to probe the company over its Autopilot feature. Photo credit: Getty Images

Amid an ongoing probe, the US traffic safety regulator has said it's in discussions with Elon Musk's Tesla after a recent software update allows drivers to play videogames while the car is in motion.

The US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) made the announcement after the New York Times reported on the feature, which was rolled out in a recent over-the-air software update.

"Distraction-affected crashes are a concern, particularly in vehicles equipped with an array of convenience technologies such as entertainment screens," the NHTSA told Reuters.

"We are aware of driver concerns and are discussing the feature with the manufacturer."

Website The Verge independently confirmed that the three games added with the software update: Solitaire, Sky Force Reloaded and The Battle of Polytopia. They're playable on the touchscreen while the car is moving.

A warning saying that "playing while the car is in motion is only for passengers" does appear, but it only requires a button to be pressed to confirm; something the driver can easily do.

Until the software update, games could only be played while the vehicle was parked.

The NHTSA said distraction is a major factor in deadly accidents in the US. The Department of Transportation estimates that over 20,000 people died in traffic crashes in the first half of the year, the Times reported.

The safety regulator is already investigating Tesla due to ongoing concerns over its 'Autopilot' system.

Despite its name, Autopilot still requires drivers to keep their hands on the wheel and doesn't take full control of the car.

The basic driver assistance system comes with every new Tesla, but owners can purchase full self-driving software for an extra US$10,000 that Musk has previously said will lead to autonomous driving.

However there have been numerous incidents where Teslas operating in Autopilot mode "have encountered first responder scenes and subsequently struck one or more vehicles involved with those scenes" according to the NHTSA.

It's also asked the electric vehicle manufacturer why it failed to recall vehicles to update the Autopilot driver-assistance system instead of using an over-the-air software update.

It made it clear to Tesla that it considered the update related to vehicle safety necessitated a recall and wanted to know the company's "technical and/or legal basis for declining".

"As Tesla is aware, the Safety Act imposes an obligation on manufacturers of motor vehicles to initiate a recall by notifying NHTSA when they determine vehicles or equipment they produced contain defects related to motor vehicle safety or do not comply with an applicable motor vehicle safety standard," the agency said.