The Fact You Can Game While Driving A Tesla Reminds Us The NHTSA Is Totally Inept

The Fact You Can Game While Driving A Tesla Reminds Us The NHTSA Is Totally Inept

We’re not even halfway through the week yet and The New York Times has torn into Tesla not once, but twice. The big story alleges that the company essentially faked its “Full Self-Driving” promotional video by pre-setting a route for the vehicle to follow, a route that it failed to navigate without hitting something. The second, lesser-but-still-concerning piece of news pertains to Tesla Arcade, the manufacturer’s in-car gaming service, and the fact that it allows drivers to play some games on the central infotainment display even if the vehicle is in motion.

The Times quotes a Model 3 owner by the name of Vince Patton, who was surprised to discover he could play Solitaire while driving in a parking lot. Tesla Arcade’s been a thing for a while, but as the article explains, games were previously only playable while the car was in park. The company supposedly pushed an update to vehicles in July that added three titles, including Solitaire, and lifted that restriction for them:

Until this summer, video games in Tesla’s software package — there were more than a dozen — could be played only while a car was in park. That changed when the 2021.12.25.6 update was beamed to Tesla vehicles. It added solitaire; a jet fighter game, Sky Force Reloaded; and The Battle of Polytopia: Moonrise, a conquest strategy game. Mr. Patton said that he was able to get access to all three with his car in drive, and that he had filed a complaint with NHTSA through its website.

Except, that timeline doesn’t appear to be entirely accurate. The Times links to a video of a driver launching Solitaire while their Model 3 is in drive, but it’s dated January 1, 2021 — six months before the summer update. Midway through the video, an on-screen settings menu reveals this particular car had been running software version 2020.48 at the time of filming.

Another video uploaded to YouTube five days earlier, on December 27, 2020, showed someone running Solitaire while clearly on the road, with Autopilot engaged. “Oh whoa, I thought you had to keep hands on the wheels,” one commenter wrote, to which the original poster replied “technically, I had to click ‘I am a passenger.’” That was followed by a “shush” emoji — you know, the kind you sprinkle onto the ends of messages when you’re knowingly posing a danger to every motorist in your immediate vicinity, but being cute about it. How cheeky.

The ability to play games while driving predates this past summer and was possible in Tesla vehicles as far back as the end of last year. At least, that’s what I’m finding on YouTube. I can’t track down a video of someone pulling this off prior to that December 27 clip; if such footage exists, feel free to educate us all in the comments. Either way, this is clearly nothing new and the media’s only picking up on it now.

I’ve never driven a Tesla — hell, I think the one and only time I sat in one was in a mall in like 2015. It’s hard to keep up on this stuff unless you’re an owner. The cat’s out of the bag now.

We can, and should, chastise Tesla all day long for allowing this sort of thing. It’s lazy at best, deliberately negligent at worst. In its report, the Times cites data from the Department of Transportation that more than 20,000 people died in traffic accents this year. Distracted driving is attributed to roughly 10 per cent of fatalities on the road, but experts believe the true figure is considerably higher. “I think the number’s closer to 50 per cent,” Steve Kiefer, a senior General Motors executive, told the newspaper.

Some may argue that the responsibility to drive attentively rests with the driver, not the designer of the car. I have to wonder if they’d still hold that opinion if, god forbid, a roadway tragedy affected themselves or a loved one. This is common sense. Much like a minor faking their date of birth on an age-gated website, a prompt to tap “I am a passenger” is a flagrant dereliction of responsibility on Tesla’s part. The fact that warning message is even present in the first place is a tacit admission from Tesla itself that this is a serious issue — or at least one serious enough to pretend it cares about.

It’s tremendously lazy, therefore, that the company couldn’t just restrict these games based on the car’s drive status, especially because it had been doing exactly that before last December. But it’d be foolish to paint Tesla as the only guilty party here, because as we now understand, the government’s been allowing the company to get away with this for nearly a year and the only people seemingly aware, aside from Tesla itself, were owners of its products.

The problem is that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is entirely toothless. All it can do is advise automakers on responsible systems design — how long glances and actions should take for someone behind the wheel. The NHTSA doesn’t test vehicles to determine if they comply with this guidance, because guidance is all it is — not law and not enforceable. Slate’s David Zipper delved into the complexity of this problem in September, quoting our own Jason Torchinsky in his research. Here’s what Zipper wrote:

In 2013 NHTSA issued guidance establishing maximum lengths of time that infotainment tasks should entail (each task should be completed with glances of two seconds or less, totaling no more than twelve seconds), while recommending that particularly dangerous activities, like accessing social networks or watching videos, be blocked while the car is in motion. But the term “guidance” means what it implies — it is merely a suggestion, which automakers can ignore. An academic assessment published in 2017 found that many infotainment systems already created distraction that exceeded NHTSA’s recommended threshold.

I will give the bulk of the auto industry credit, though, because while the government absolutely should codify and mandate a criteria for car interfaces, practically no carmaker shrugs off common sense recommendations about the particularly egregious stuff, like movies or games on infotainment screens.

Take the new Jeep Grand Wagoneer, for example. It has an additional dashboard-mounted display above the glovebox, where the front passenger sits. But as our old pal Doug DeMuro demonstrated in his exploration of the big SUV, that screen is covered in a material that looks like privacy film, similar to what some people apply to their laptops, so it appears totally black from the driver’s vantage point.

That’s because Stellantis knows it would be colossally stupid — not to mention a really bad look — if the passenger were playing a game, thumbing around Google Maps or doing just about anything on that screen that could potentially take the driver’s attention off the road at the worst possible time. Which brings us to the other layer to this: even if the driver isn’t the one actively operating the display in their field of view, allowing that screen to show games, movies or any kind of frivolous, colourful, fast-moving content while the car is in drive is still a bad idea.

Google operates a research lab in California where it validates its Android Auto interface in a mock car interior to gauge concerns like reach and glance length, to design less distracting infotainment software. Some companies do take this stuff seriously.

This isn’t to say the industry couldn’t be much better about these issues than it’s been — moving climate controls back off displays and onto physical buttons would be an excellent place to start. However, most manufacturers certainly appear to be more mindful of the dangers than Tesla. Unfortunately, Tesla has zero incentive to do anything differently, because the government body that exists solely to ensure the safety of our roads never amended its Big Book Of Rules to reflect the last three decades of automotive design. Perhaps there’s still time to shoehorn something about this into the infrastructure bill.

I’m curious if Tesla will allow the same on-the-move freedom for games like Cyberpunk 2077, a title Elon Musk demoed as playable in the new Model S with its supposed PS5-rivaling embedded AMD GPU. Or The Witcher 3, for that matter. Marketing images that have been live on the company’s site for months, like the one at the top of this post, suggest owners can download it right now even though I can’t find footage of a single production Tesla actually playing it. At this rate, I’ll be more than happy if I never do.