US auto safety regulators said Wednesday they have opened a formal safety investigation into 580,000 Tesla vehicles sold since 2017 over the automaker's decision to allow games to be played on the front center touchscreen.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) said its preliminary evaluation covers various 2017-2022 model year Tesla Model 3, S, X, and Y vehicles. This functionality, referred to as “Passenger Play,” "may distract the driver and increase the risk of a crash," the agency said.
NHTSA said it has "confirmed that this capability has been available since December 2020 in Tesla 'Passenger Play'-equipped vehicles." Before then, the game feature "was enabled only when the vehicle was in Park."
Tesla did not immediately comment. NHTSA said it "will evaluate aspects of the feature, including the frequency and use scenarios of Tesla 'Passenger Play'."
Earlier this month, the New York Times highlighted the game feature prompting NHTSA to say it was in discussions with Tesla about the feature.
The agency noted earlier in December that distracted driving accounts for a significant number of US road deaths - 3,142 in 2019 alone. Safety advocates have said official figures underestimate the problem because not all distracted drivers admit the issue after crashes.
The Times said the Tesla update added three games - solitaire, a jet fighter and conquest strategy scenario - and added vehicles have warnings reading: "Playing while the car is in motion is only for passengers."
The Times reported that a button asks for confirmation that the player is a passenger, though a driver could play simply by pressing the button.
In 2013, NHTSA issued guidelines to encourage automakers "to factor safety and driver distraction prevention into their designs and adoption of infotainment devices in vehicles."
The guidelines "recommend that in-vehicle devices be designed so that they cannot be used by the driver to perform inherently distracting secondary tasks while driving," the agency said.
The agency in August opened a safety investigation into 765,000 Tesla vehicles over its driver-assistance system Autopilot after a series of crashes involving the system and parked emergency vehicles.
A preliminary evaluation is a first step before NHTSA decides whether to upgrade a probe to an engineering analysis, which must happen before the agency can demand a recall.