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Feds probe ‘phantom braking’ complaints on new Teslas

Drivers say their Model 3 and Model Y vehicles hit the brakes at highway speeds without warning.

(CN) — The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration announced it is investigating complaints that certain Tesla models brake unexpectedly on the highway.

The agency has received 354 complaints in the last nine months involving "unexpected brake activation in 2021-2022 Tesla Model 3 and Model Y vehicles," according to a document posted Thursday. Often described as "phantom braking," the problem occurs, according to complaints, when drivers use the "autopilot" function on highways.

"The vehicle unexpectedly applies its brakes while driving at highway speeds," according to the document. "Complainants report that the rapid deceleration can occur without warning, at random, and often repeatedly in a single drive cycle."

Tesla has two driver-assist (or self-driving) modes: autopilot and "full self-drive," a more sophisticated version that's still in its beta testing stage despite being used by nearly 60,000 drivers on public roads. Drivers are admonished to stay alert and be ready to take over manual driving at any time when using either mode. Both driver-assist functions have been subject to numerous enforcement actions by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The "phantom breaking" issue marks the fourth formal investigation opened by agency in the past three years, according to The Associated Press. The agency is also investigating how the autopilot function responds to emergency vehicles. There have been a dozen crashes involving Teslas and emergency vehicles, with one fatality. A software update sent out to vehicles this past September was intended to improve the detection of emergency vehicles in low-light conditions.

This month, Tesla agreed to disable a function in its "full self-drive" software that had vehicles making "rolling stops" at four-way stop signs. And this past week, the company agreed to disable its "boombox" function — which allows Tesla drivers to blast their music on the vehicle's external speakers — while the cars are in motion. The highway safety agency had said the music was obscuring the sounds electric vehicle must make in order to warn pedestrians that they are approaching.

The boombox order marked the 15th against Tesla by the feds since January 2021. When asked on Twitter why his company agreed to the boombox recall, Tesla CEO Elon Musk replied: "The fun police made us do it (sigh).”

Not all of the issues surrounding Teslas driver-assistant mode have been so innocuous. There have been 33 crashes involving cars using driver-assist modes since 2016, accounting for 11 fatalities.

In January, a Tesla driver became the first charged with vehicular manslaughter over a fatal crash that occurred while the driver was using the autopilot feature.

The automaker did not respond to an email requesting comment by press time.

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