2 Senators Tell Tesla They Are 'Deeply Troubled' About Self-Driving Dangers

A pair of Senate Democrats, Richard Blumenthal and Ed Markey wrote a letter Tuesday to Tesla CEO Elon Musk expressing their "significant concerns over recent reports of flaws" with Tesla's automated driving systems they believe could be unsafe.

"We are deeply troubled by Tesla's design choices that seemingly encourage unsafe driving habits," the Senators wrote about the automaker's "Full Self-Driving" system that was the subject of a recall of over 50,000 vehicles last week.

The Senators, who also released a statement last week expressing concern over reported braking issues, wrote that they are worried by the company's history of "flouting basic safety standards." A key concern raised in the letter was the function to allow Tesla drivers to enable their cars to perform "rolling stops" and not fully stop at stop signs under certain conditions, the aspect of the "Full Self-Driving" system that initiated the recall. Tesla has vowed in the past to press on with the development of its self-driving technology.

"While advanced driver assistance and automated driving systems have the potential to improve safety, they must be implemented responsibly and comply with existing traffic laws," the Senators wrote. "When these systems do not meet these essential requirements, they put all of those who use our roads at risk of injury or death."

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) investigated the rolling stops. It also looked into several other complaints about Tesla's software and vehicles in recent months.

In December, the NHTSA opened an investigation into a software feature that allowed drivers and passengers to play video games on the dashboard screen while the car was in motion, a feature Tesla later disabled. The safety administration also previously investigated cases of Tesla's automated software crashing into parked emergency vehicles.

The senator's letter states that the NHTSA is currently investigating complaints of "phantom braking," which is when the software causes the car to slow down or stop when there is no obstruction in front of it.

Blumenthal and Markey also requested answers to a series of questions by February 22 including ones about when and why the "rolling stop" system was designed. In addition, they asked for a list of the features of the "Full Self-Driving" system, including features that have been removed over safety concerns.

The Senators went on to solicit confirmation on whether any features of the "Full Self-Driving" software violate traffic safety laws and whether the features have caused accidents. They also requested information into the "phantom braking" complaints, as well as whether vehicles with Autopilot or "Full Self-Driving" systems have technology in place to monitor the driver to ensure they are paying attention to the road at all times.

Last month, Tesla reported record profits for 2021 and said that increasing testing and safety of the self-driving software was a top priority, reasserting their belief that the software can be developed and implemented safely.

Requests for comment on the letter from Newsweek were left with Tesla, and Sens. Markey and Blumenthal.

Update (2/8/2022 12:55 p.m.): This story has been updated with additional context of the letter from Blumenthal and Markey and background into NHTSA investigations of Tesla software.

Tesla Elon Musk Richard Blumenthal Ed Markey
Two US Senators wrote a letter to Tesla CEO Elon Musk expressing concern over the safety of Tesla's automated driving systems. Above, a low-angle view of the facade of Tesla Motors dealership with logo and sign in Pleasanton, California, July 23, 2018. Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images