Federal regulators have raised concerns over a hidden feature within Tesla's Autopilot software known as “Elon Mode,” which could potentially deactivate safety checks designed to ensure driver attentiveness. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) issued a Special Order on July 26, signed by John Donaldson, the acting chief counsel for the regulator, addressing these concerns.
In the letter, Donaldson expressed apprehension about the safety implications of “Elon Mode” and its potential impact on driver attention. He stated, “NHTSA is concerned that this feature was introduced to consumer vehicles and, now that the existence of this feature is known to the public, more drivers may attempt to activate it. The resulting relaxation of controls designed to ensure that the driver remains engaged in the dynamic driving task could lead to greater driver inattention and failure of the driver to properly supervise Autopilot.”
The discovery of “Elon Mode” was initially made by a Tesla software hacker using the handle @greentheonly. They reported that this feature enabled them to complete a 600-mile (966 km) drive without once touching the steering wheel to demonstrate attentiveness to the road.
While some Tesla drivers have found the alerts reminding them to touch the steering wheel annoying, these notifications are critical safety checks for Tesla's Level 2 and 2+ driver assistance systems, including Autopilot and Full Self-Driving (FSD) capabilities. These checks are essential to ensure that drivers remain attentive, as these systems cannot safely operate in all driving scenarios.
The NHTSA's concerns regarding “Elon Mode” are grounded in the potential risks it poses, and they provided Tesla with a deadline, ending on August 25, to respond to their inquiries. Tesla confirmed to Bloomberg that they did respond within the specified timeframe.
To underscore the gravity of the situation, the NHTSA warned Tesla of potential fines. These fines could amount to up to $26,315 per day for failure to provide an accurate or comprehensive response to the special order, with a maximum cumulative penalty of $131,564,183.
As of now, the details of Tesla's response to the special order and any potential penalties or actions the company may face remain undisclosed.