DETROIT — Last August, Vince Patton was watching a YouTube video of a Tesla owner who made a startling observation: Tesla drivers can now play a video game on their car’s touch-screen dashboard — while the vehicle is moving. .
Eager to see himself, Patton drove his own 2021 Tesla Model 3 to an empty community college parking lot, activated a game called “Sky Force Reloaded” from a menu, and did a few loops.
“I was just amazed that, yes, of course, this sophisticated video game came through,” said Patton, 59, a retired broadcast journalist who lives near Portland, Ore.
He also tried solitaire, and was able to activate that game while driving. Later, he found that he could browse the Internet while his car was in motion.
Patton, who loves his car and says he has nothing against Tesla, worries that drivers will play the game and become dangerously distracted.
“Someone’s going to be murdered,” he said. “It’s absolutely crazy.”
That’s why earlier last month, Patton decided to file a complaint with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the government’s road safety agency.
“NHTSA is required to prohibit all live video in the front seat and all live interactive web browsing while the car is in motion,” Patton wrote in its complaint. “Creating a dangerous distraction for the driver is negligent carelessness.”
On December 8, NHTSA confirmed that it was looking into the matter. Patton’s complaint was first reported by The New York Times.
“We are aware of the driver’s concerns and are discussing the feature with the manufacturer,” an NHTSA spokesperson wrote in an email. “The Vehicle Safety Act prohibits manufacturers from selling vehicles with design defects that pose an unreasonable risk to safety.”
The spokesperson declined to provide further details about his conversations with Tesla. The agency had not opened a formal investigation, which would involve requests for documents and other detailed information. Tesla, which has dissolved its media relations department, did not respond to messages from the Associated Press.
The NHTSA investigation is the latest in a growing list of potential breaches involving advanced auto technology that are being reviewed by two federal agencies as potential security risks.
The government is looking at Tesla’s Autopilot partially automated driving system as well as its “full self-driving” software system, which is being tested by selected owners on public roads. In addition, as it grows the investigation under President Joe Biden, NHTSA is investigating over-the-Internet software updates aimed at fixing security problems and Tesla battery fires.
In its statement, NHTSA said it continues to research driving distractions and that it issues voluntary guidelines for automakers to determine whether a particular act interferes with a driver’s attention.
“If a task does not meet the acceptance criteria,” the statement said, “NHTSA guidelines recommend that the work be made inaccessible for performance by the driver while driving.”
The agency noted that more than 3,100 people died in accidents involving distracted drivers in 2019, which accounts for about 9% of all US traffic deaths. But safety experts argue that distracted driving accidents are under-counted.
It’s not clear how long Tesla allows games to be played while vehicles are in motion. But Patton said a software update he saw over the summer may have started allowing “Sky Force Reloaded” to be used by drivers. He said the game includes missiles and lasers that can be fired at objects.
Before the video game is activated while the car is in motion, drivers are asked if they are passengers and they must click a button saying that they are. But Patton said it seems Tesla has no way of confirming that fact.
“If you’re alone in the car,” he said, a driver can lie down and still play while driving.
“It’s not much of a security barrier,” he said.
Even if only one passenger is playing the game, Patton said, it can still be distracting for the driver because the game occupies about two-thirds of the touch screen. It also makes it difficult for the driver to see warnings and controls for the windshield defroster, he said.
Previously, Patton said, games could only be played when vehicles were in park. He said many drivers use them at Tesla’s Supercharger stations while waiting for the batteries to recharge.
However, the car stopped him from watching movies on Netflix and YouTube while on the move.
Jason Levine, executive director of the nonprofit Center for Auto Safety, said in an email that NHTSA has the authority to declare and recall vehicles as defective.
“There is no doubt that a large screen next to the driver, on which the driver or passenger can play video games while the vehicle is in motion, is an unreasonable risk to safety,” Levine wrote. “Recent statements from NHTSA suggest that this feature is a violation of both NHTSA’s driver distraction guidelines and the spirit and letter of the law.”
Tesla’s Autopilot system has been abused in the past by drivers who have failed its system to detect hands at the wheel. In one case, a driver in California was arrested while riding in the back seat as the car rolled down a highway.
After investigating two fatal crashes involving Autopilot, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended Tesla install a camera system to ensure that drivers are paying attention. The agency said in October that Tesla had not officially responded.
Tesla has stated that, despite their name, Autopilot and “full self-driving” are only driver-assistance systems and cannot self-drive. It states that drivers should always pay attention and be prepared for action.