Last week, the New York Times noticed something that federal regulators hadn’t about Tesla: that thanks to a software update this summer, occupants can now play video games on the dashboard console while the car is in motion. Not just the passenger, but the driver.
This would seem to be the latest example of Tesla charging ahead with a feature that could potentially endanger people in and outside its cars, and sure enough, the feds are now looking into the matter. I was also curious about the feature. So on Sunday, I went to a Maryland Tesla showroom to test drive a Model 3 while gaming, a stunt that other Tesla owners have demonstrated on YouTube.
The showroom was located in a mall, which had a parking lot where I felt safe enough trying to maneuver the car. I spent the 20-minute test session trying to drive while playing three games that come with the car: Solitaire, Sky Force Reloaded, and the Battle of Polytopia. I only drove at extremely low speeds, so that any collisions with other vehicles would result in no more than a fender bender, and stuck to places that had little to no pedestrian traffic.
Getting games up and running on the Model 3’s 15-inch touchscreen while in motion is frighteningly easy. After selecting a game, the system will ask you to confirm that you’re a passenger and not a driver, which is easy to bypass; it’s basically like those websites that try to weed out minors by asking for a birthdate, but with more serious consequences. I first tried playing Solitaire while driving up and down an empty section of the parking garage. Fortunately, Solitaire doesn’t require your constant attention, so I could concentrate primarily on my driving while occasionally glancing down to look for aces. It was probably akin to texting while driving, which is nonetheless extremely dangerous, especially at higher speeds. I also briefly played Solitaire with the Tesla’s autopilot feature engaged, but the car began accelerating to an uncomfortable speed, so I quickly switched back to manual.
I next started up Sky Force Reloaded while navigating a remote area of the above-ground parking lot that didn’t seem to have a lot of foot traffic, which would turn out to be the most perilous stretch of my test drive. Sky Force Reloaded is essentially an updated version of the 1980s arcade game Galaga, in which you pilot a 2D spaceship that’s firing lasers at successive waves of enemies. Unlike Solitaire, this game requires you to keep an eye on the constantly shifting battlefield.
I soon realized that I could drive either the Tesla well or the spaceship well, but not both. In my first attempt, I managed to level up in Sky Force Reloaded, but also almost crashed into two cars that were making illegal U-turns. My girlfriend, who was sitting in the passenger seat, had to alert me to avoid accidents in both instances. It didn’t help that Sky Force Reloaded’s intense synth-pop soundtrack was blaring over the speakers, along with a narrator who at one point shouted, “A massive object has just appeared on our radar.” In that moment, while I was trying to make sure that no one trying to back out in front of me, it was tough to tell whether the warning was coming from the Model 3’s sensors or the game. When I committed myself to concentrating more on the road, rather than the game, my spaceship was obliterated within 30 seconds. In the remaining minutes of my test drive, I tried to play the strategy game Battle of Polytopia, though I really couldn’t figure out the rules while trying to park in the perpendicular spot.
As a first-time Telsa driver, I can say that allowing even the possibility of someone playing games on the front console while the car is in motion feels wildly irresponsible. Even having a passenger play Sky Force Reloaded while someone else is driving is a dangerous distraction, given how loud and kinetic the game is. I assume that most Tesla owners aren’t going to be as reckless as I was on main roads at higher speeds, but the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s guidelines do dictate that cars must “be designed so that they cannot be used by the driver to perform inherently distracting secondary tasks while driving.” The Model 3 weakly enforces this guideline at best. In fact, the NHTSA announced last week that it’s currently looking into Tesla’s video games, after the several owners submitted complaints and the Times reported on the feature.
Tesla generally has a track record of allegedly pushing out features without solid safeguards that consumers can easily abuse. The NHTSA has opened a number of investigations into Tesla, mostly having to do with cars’ self-driving systems. While you’re supposed to pay attention to the road and keep your hands on the wheel even when autopilot is engaged, there is some evidence suggesting it’s easy to bypass Tesla’s measures to prevent distracted driving. In 2019, two men riding in a Tesla Model S died when the car sped into a turn and crashed into a tree in Texas. According to local authorities, no one was in the driver’s seat, a stunt that other Tesla owners have demonstrated on YouTube. In August, the NHTSA opened an investigation into the company after there were 11 incidents in which Tesla’s reportedly struck first-responder vehicles while in autopilot mode. Despite the scrutiny from regulators, the company rolled out the not-quite-autonomous “full self-driving” feature in November, which drivers found impressive in some instances and dangerously lacking in others. Tesla managed to gamify this feature as well, giving drivers safety scores that could unlock more advanced versions. Just another thing that Tesla and its CEO think is a game.