The NHTSA Ordered Tesla To Explain Under Oath What 'Elon Mode' Was

Tesla Autopilot 17 photos
Photo: Hoovies Garage on YouTube / Peisert Design / autoevolution edit
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Elon Musk recently live demoed Full Self-Driving (FSD) V12, the out-of-Beta J3016 Level 2 advanced driver-assistance system (ADAS). The CEO wanted to show everyone an uncut and unedited drive that proved the camera-based suite could control the car on city roads. Shortly after, word got out that the NHTSA issued a special order regarding a feature included this year in the software.
As technology evolves, government agencies try to keep up by understanding what's going on. Sometimes, they might want to learn how some specific systems or products work because some foul play is suspected.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) sent Tesla a special order late last month that was just recently uncovered. It asked the Texas-based EV maker about Autopilot, a feature that eliminates the steering wheel nag when the ADAS is active, and the driver takes their hands off it for prolonged periods.

Tesla explicitly tells its customers who use Autopilot or FSD Beta that they must remain attentive and constantly engage the steering wheel because the software may, at times, behave unpredictably. The product is not finished when writing. Hence, the "Beta" indicative that's included in the name. Even the polished and neural networks-only FSD V12 tried to run a red light.

Usually, Tesla owners who activate the ADAS and don't keep their hands on the steering wheel will hear and feel a vibration from the steering wheel and see a warning on the dashboard display (or central screen on Model 3s and Model Ys).

If the system doesn't detect any turning force being applied, it will start decelerating after around 60 seconds to a standstill and turn on the hazards.

Tesla Autopilot and FSD
Photo: Tesla
Other automakers have similar fail-safes, but some implementations, like BMW's, may even contact emergency services.

But late last year, a proposal was made on Twitter to eliminate the "Autopilot nag" for experienced FSD Beta or Autopilot users. Tesla's CEO agreed and has gradually given this perk to some users. That's why we could see many videos online showing people driving their EVs with the ADAS turned on while not keeping their hands on the steering wheel.

In April, Elon Musk confirmed on Twitter that the update was reaching more and more Tesla units.

Most recently, we've seen people with the latest FSD Beta suite installed driving while not keeping their hands on the steering wheel, despite the automaker's warnings not to trust the software completely. This questionable change was known as "Elon Mode."

The NHTSA sent Tesla a special order telling the automaker that it "is concerned" about the elimination of the so-called "nag."

"The resulting relaxation of controls designed to ensure that the driver remain engaged in the dynamic driving task could lead to greater driver inattention and failure of the driver to properly supervise Autopilot," said the NHTSA to Tesla.

The agency sent 10 demands to the automaker. It wanted to learn the following:
  • when the software update was introduced on company and customer cars;
  • how to activate "Elon Mode" and when it works;
  • how to revert to a software version when the nag didn't disappear;
  • what differences someone could notice when "Elon Mode" was on;
  • what changed for the vehicle user interface;
  • why Tesla did this and how it decided who qualified;
  • what the brand learned from deploying this update;
  • read all the documents explaining this feature;
  • consult the instructions given to employees who had access to "Elon Mode";
  • what traffic incidents or crashes happened while this software update was activated.

The automaker had until August 2025 to answer under oath. Otherwise, it would have risked a daily fine of $26,315.
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 Download: NHTSA's Special Order to Tesla (PDF)

About the author: Florin Amariei
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Car shows on TV and his father's Fiat Tempra may have been Florin's early influences, but nowadays he favors different things, like the power of an F-150 Raptor. He'll never be able to ignore the shape of a Ferrari though, especially a yellow one.
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