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This article was published on December 23, 2021

Surprise! An investigation into Tesla’s gaming feature made people angry (Update: Tesla gives in)

The NHTSA doesn't like that video games can be played while the car's in motion

Surprise! An investigation into Tesla’s gaming feature made people angry (Update: Tesla gives in)

Surprise, surprise: Tesla’s under formal investigation by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NTHSA) again.

This time, the NHTSA is investigating the Passenger Play feature. This “allows the gameplay to function on the front center touchscreen while the vehicle is in motion and may present a distraction to the driver,” according to the agency’s official report.

As a result, on Wednesday the Office of Defects Investigation (ODI) opened a Preliminary Evaluation (PE), covering 580,000 Tesla Model 3, S, X, and Y vehicles from 2017 to 2022.

How it all started

In a summer over-the-air update, Tesla added three new games to its vehicles: Sky Force Reloaded, Solitaire, and The Battle of Polytopia: Moonrise.

When started, the games display a warning message, saying “Use of Tesla Arcade while the vehicle is in motion is only for passengers. Please check local laws prior to playing.”

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Tesla investigation Passenger Play
The displayed message. Credit: YouTube/ Cf Tesla

Once the player presses the “I am passenger” button, the game begins.

In other words, as you long as you indicate that you’re not a passenger, it’s possible to play the three games while the vehicle is in motion, no matter if you’re actually the driver.

You can take a look at the videos below:


How did the NHTSA get involved?

In August, the agency received a complaint from a Tesla owner who claimed that live games and internet web searching could be used by anyone in the vehicle at any time, asking for action to be taken. 

Now the ODI has confirmed that this gameplay functionality has been available since December 2020 in Passenger Play-equipped vehicles. Beforehand, gameplay was enabled only when the vehicle was in Park mode.

The fact that the NHTSA has been triggered by a functionality that can cause driver inattentiveness and potentially a car accident is no surprise.

The agency noted earlier in December that distracted driving accounts for a significant number of road deaths in the US — 3,142 in 2019 alone. 

Tesla’s unexpected response

Believe it or not, Tesla has folded. A mere day after the launch of the investigation, the automaker informed the agency that it won’t allow drivers and front-seat passengers to play video games on the dashboard touch screen while its cars are in motion, The Washington Post reports.

Lucia Sanchez, a spokeswoman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said in an emailed statement:

Tesla informed the agency that it is changing the functionality of this feature. In a new software update, ‘Passenger Play’ will now be locked and unusable when the vehicle is in motion.

But… the investigation has raised some controversial responses

Having a game occupying two-thirds of your screen (on which you rely for driving information), or, even worse, being able to play it behind the wheel is obviously dangerous.

The NHTSA seems to have taken a necessary precaution, right?

Unsurprisingly, the agency’s move hasn’t been received with unanimous enthusiasm.

On Twitter, many users are expressing their dissatisfaction with NHTSA’s decision, highlighting that phone use or drunk-driving are much more worrisome.

Take a look at the following tweets:

In fact, according to the NHTSA itself, “texting is the most alarming distraction” and about 28 people in the US die everyday in drunk-driving crashes

So are we missing the bigger picture here, focusing on a single tree rather than the forest?

And there’s another point to consider as well: can we blame a company’s tech if we are misusing it?

The answer lies somewhere in the middle.

Yes, the possibility to play games while driving is potentially dangerous and the NHTSA is right to evaluate the frequency of the gameplay’s misuse. Still, a driver should always know better than to indulge to any distraction when behind the wheel — driving is a privilege as much as a responsibility, folks.

Update, December 24, 2021, 1005 CEST: Added information on Tesla’s response to the investigation 

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