Tesla Subject of Second U.S. Investigation, This One Over Playing Games While Driving

Electric car manufacturer Tesla is the subject of a second government investigation over a feature called "Passenger Play" that allows drivers to play games on a car's touch screen while the vehicle is in motion. The formal probe from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration will look at all four Tesla models "to evaluate the driver distraction potential of Tesla 'Passenger Play' while the vehicle is being driven."

The NHTSA is already investigating Tesla's "Autopilot" feature that has repeatedly caused crashes with stopped emergency vehicles, and why the company did not file recall documents when it sent an internet update meant to fix the issue.

About 580,000 of Tesla's electric cars and SUVs from model years 2017 through 2022 will be investigated in the "Passenger Play" probe. Officials "will evaluate aspects of the feature, including the frequency and use scenarios of Tesla "Passenger Play,"' the NHTSA said.

A spokesman for the NHTSA said in an email that only one Tesla owner had filed a complaint so far about the feature that allows drivers to play games while the vehicle is in motion. The agency determined that "Passenger Play" has been available in equipped Tesla vehicles since December 2020.

"Before this time, enabling gameplay was only possible when the vehicle was in park," the spokesman said.

Documents posted on the NHTSA website about the investigation do not reference any crashes or injuries linked to the feature.

Tesla Investigation
The U.S. has opened a formal investigation into a report that Tesla vehicles allow people to play video games on a center touch screen while they are driving. Vince Patton, a new Tesla owner, demonstrates on December 8, 2021, on a closed course in Portland, Oregon, how he can play video games on the vehicle's console while driving. Gillian Flaccus/AP Photo

An investigation can lead to a recall. A message was left early Wednesday seeking comment from Tesla, which has disbanded its media relations department.

Tesla owner Vince Patton, who lives near Portland, Oregon, filed the complaint with the agency last month. In August, he was watching a YouTube video of a Tesla owner who discovered that he could now play a video game on his touch-screen while the vehicle is moving.

Curious to see for 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 dumbfounded that, yes, sure enough, this sophisticated video game came up," said Patton, a 59-year-old retired broadcast journalist who lives near Portland, Oregon.

He tried Solitaire, too, and was able to activate that game while driving. Later, he found he could browse the internet while his car was moving.

Patton, who loves his car and says he has nothing against Tesla, worries that drivers will play games and become dangerously distracted.

"Somebody's going to get killed," he said. "It's absolutely insane."

So he filed the complaint early last month.

"NHTSA needs to prohibit all live video in the front seat and all live interactive web browsing while the car is in motion," Patton wrote in his complaint. "Creating a dangerous distraction for the driver is recklessly negligent."

Earlier in December, Mercedes-Benz issued a recall for a similar issue caused by a computer configuration error, raising questions about whether Tesla was being allowed to do something that other automakers are not. Most automakers disable front touch screens while vehicles are moving.

In the Mercedes case, drivers could browse the internet or watch television while the cars were moving. The automaker said it intended to disable the features while the cars are in motion. The issue was corrected by updating a Mercedes server.

The NHTSA is also looking into the performance of Tesla's "Full Self-Driving" software after getting a complaint that it nearly caused a crash.

Tesla says neither the "Autopilot" or "Full Self-Driving" system can drive vehicles and that drivers must be ready to intervene at all times.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Tesla Logo
Electric car manufacturer Tesla is the subject of a second governmental investigation for reportedly allowing drivers to play games on the car's touch screen while the vehicle is in motion. The Tesla logo is seen in Salt Lake City on October 18, 2019. Rick Bowmar/AP Photo