(CN) — Tesla has agreed to disable a little-known feature in nearly 54,000 of its cars that had them make "rolling stops" at four-way stop signs, gliding through intersections at speeds of up to 5.6 miles per hour.
The announcement comes after discussions with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, or NHTSA, a government agency that regulates vehicles. Though the move is technically a recall, no physical cars will have to be sent anywhere; instead, the Teslas' software will be updated sometime this month in much the same way a phone's software is updated, over wireless internet.
"Entering an all-way-stop intersection without coming to a complete stop may increase the risk of collision," reads NHTSA's safety recall report, which was posted Tuesday. "Tesla is not aware of any collisions, injuries or fatalities related to this condition."
According to Tesla's latest earnings report, issued last week, nearly 60,000 drivers are testing out the company's "full self-driving" software, on public roads. The report calls the capability, which costs drivers an additional $12,000 and is still in its "beta" stage, "a key component to improve automobile safety as well as further accelerating the world’s transition to sustainable energy through higher utilization of our vehicles." The phrase "full self-driving" is not meant to taken literally; drivers are told they must pay attention and be ready to take over at any moment.
The "rolling stop" feature has been part of the "full soft driving" software for more than a year, since October 2020. Some customers have reported their cars not coming to complete stops at some stop signs, but it was unclear why that was happening — or indeed how fast the cars were going.
"This report clarifies we’re not talking about behaviors that ordinary drivers might find innocuous," said Phil Koopman, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University who has been working on autonomous vehicle safety for 25 years. "We’re not taking about half-a-mile-an-hour. We’re talking about 5.6 miles-an-hour. That’s jogging speed."
Koopman said the revelations were troubling because they show that Tesla is a company willing to intentionally break the law.
"It’s an issue if a company decides to knowingly and intentionally violate one of the bedrock traffic laws — stopping at a stop sign — and wait until they get caught," Koopman said. He added: "NHTSA has better things to do with their time than play Whac-a-mole with Tesla."
Spokespeople for Tesla could not be reached for comment. According to the Associated Press, the company has disbanded its media relations department.
NHTSA is currently investigating whether a November 2021 crash in California was caused by a defect in Tesla's "full self-driving" software. It is also looking into whether or not Tesla's "autopilot" software, a less sophisticated autonomous driving feature, causes certain cars to crash into emergency vehicles parked with hazard lights on.
Last week, Tesla CEO Elon Musk was quoted as saying: "would be shocked if we do not achieve full self-driving safer than human this year. I would be shocked."
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