Not long after buying a Tesla Model 3 this summer, Vince Patton saw a YouTube clip highlighting a feature that took him by surprise: three video games that can be played on the large touch screen mounted in front of the dashboard — while driving down the road.
“I thought surely that can’t be right,” Mr. Patton, a retiree in Lake Oswego, Ore.
But in a parking lot, he gave it a try, and he was able to play a solitaire game on the Model 3 while in motion. “I only did it for like five seconds and then turned it off,” he said. “I’m astonished. To me, it just seems inherently dangerous.”
The automaker added the games in an over-the-air software update that was sent to most of its cars this summer. They can be played by a driver or by a passenger in full view of the driver, raising fresh questions about whether Tesla is compromising safety as it rushes to add new technologies and features in its cars.
“It’s a big concern if it plays in view of the driver, for sure,” said Jonathan Adkins, executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association, which coordinates state efforts to promote safe driving.
Tesla’s Autopilot system, which can steer, slow and accelerate a car on its own, has for several years faced criticism from safety experts because it allows drivers to take their hands off the steering wheel for extended periods, even though they are not supposed to. And it lacks an effective means of ensuring that drivers keep their eyes on the road.
The combination of hands-free driving and drivers’ looking away from the road has been connected to at least 12 traffic deaths since 2016 in Tesla cars that were operating in Autopilot mode, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Mr. Adkins said the addition of video games “is crying out for NHTSA to provide some guidance and regulation.”
Tesla and its chief executive, Elon Musk, did not respond to several emails asking about the new video games and whether they could jeopardize safety.
Distracted driving is a major cause of the rising number of traffic deaths in the United States. In the first six months of this year, 20,160 people died in traffic crashes, according to estimates from the Department of Transportation. That was up 18.4 percent from the first half of 2020, and the highest total since 2006.
Driver inattention is officially cited as the cause of about 10 percent of traffic deaths, said Steve Kiefer, a senior General Motors executive who also heads a foundation dedicated to combating distracted driving. But he and other safety experts believe the actual figure is much higher because, they say, crash investigations often overlook distraction while naming other causes, such as reckless driving.
“I think the number’s closer to 50 percent,” Mr. Kiefer said.
The Kiefer Foundation is dedicated to his son, Mitchel, who was killed at age 18 in 2016 when a distracted driver rear-ended his car on a highway in Michigan.
Distracted driving stems from activities that take drivers’ hands from the steering wheel, draw their eyes away from the road or divert their attention from the driving task. It is often linked to smartphone use, such as texting or emailing while at the wheel, but drivers sometimes read books or put on makeup. Some states outlaw the hand-held use of cellphones while driving. Automakers, Apple and Google have developed in-car software to make it easier to use voice commands to send text messages and place phone calls, keeping hands free, while on the go.
Automakers have also added mechanisms to reduce potential distraction from front-seat screens. Stellantis — formerly Fiat Chrysler — offers an entertainment system that can play DVDs on a front screen, but it goes dark if the car is shifted out of park. Many navigation systems do not allow addresses to be entered manually while a car is in motion. Mazda vehicles prohibit most use of the dashboard screen while in motion.
G.M.’s Super Cruise system, which can steer and brake and allows drivers to take their hands off the steering wheel, has an infrared camera to track the driver’s eyes. If they stray from the road, Super Cruise issues a warning, or shuts off and hands control back to the driver.
“We feel that with driver monitoring and eye monitoring, these features can be enacted quite safely,” said Mr. Kiefer, who heads G.M.’s international operations.
Some Tesla cars have simpler cameras that look at a driver’s face, but the cameras detect less in the dark and do not precisely track eye gaze. Four years ago, after investigating a fatal Autopilot crash, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended that Tesla add an infrared camera to improve driver monitoring, but the company has not done so.
“It’s incredibly frustrating,” said Jennifer Homendy, the safety board’s chair. “We’re trying to warn the public and tell Tesla, ‘Hey, you need to put some safeguards in.’ But they haven’t.”
The safety board investigates transportation accidents and can recommend measures to improve safety but has no power to force companies to take action. NHTSA serves that role.
NHTSA has issued guidelines telling automakers that any in-vehicle entertainment devices should be designed so the driver cannot use them “to perform inherently distracting secondary tasks while driving.”
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.
In a warning that appears before the game starts, Tesla signals its awareness that solitaire can be played while the car is moving: “Solitaire is a game for everyone, but playing while the car is in motion is only for passengers.” A button asks for confirmation that the player is a passenger, but a driver can play simply by touching it.
In a second YouTube video, another Tesla owner also shows how the game can be played while the car is in drive. “This is pretty dangerous,” the owner says in the video. “I’m sure somebody’s going to use Autopilot and then play solitaire while they’re on Autopilot. Take note of that, Tesla.”