The electric vehicle manufacturer Tesla is recalling almost every vehicle it has sold in the United States, over 2 million cars, due to safety issues associated with its controversial advanced driver assistance software – a.k.a. Autopilot.

The massive recall comes after a lengthy probe by regulators found design flaws that failed to adequately ensure that drivers kept paying attention to the road and prevent other forms of misuse.

The sweeping recall encompasses all Tesla models – the S, X, 3, and Y – sold since 2012 equipped with the Autosteer and Traffic Aware Cruise Control functions that fall under the Autopilot banner. It represents almost the entire Tesla fleet on US roads today.

Autopilot Relies Excessively on Driver Supervision

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), an engineering analysis uncovered scenarios where Autopilot lacks sufficient controls and alerts to prevent drivers from letting the car operate without their supervision.

Specifically, the NHTSA found circumstances where drivers could easily circumvent Autopilot’s monitoring and safety measures and were able to use the feature outside its operational design domain.

Features intended for limited access to highways may fail to adequately discourage use on other road types. Likewise, the prominence of warnings that signaled degraded functionality due to weather, visibility, or other constraints proved to be inadequate to guarantee driver readiness to retake full control when prompted.

Software Update to Boost Driver Focus Requirements

In response to the NHTSA assessment that current Autopilot safeguards are “not sufficient to prevent misuse”, Tesla (TSLA) has developed a software remedy to address the risks identified. Slated to deploy over the air before mid-February, the mandatory update will expand visual and audio cautions that demand increased driver vigilance when utilizing Autopilot’s Autosteer and cruise control capacities.

Upgraded alerts will also help drivers stay attentive to the road if they happen to remove their hands from the wheel or other similar actions that can be considered distracted behavior.

Checks are being added to suspend Autopilot availability if operational prerequisites are unmet. Moreover, stricter interventions will kick in for those flouting focus rules, potentially locking repeat violators out of Autosteer indefinitely.

Ambiguities Over Responsibility During Automation Cited

Autopilot constitutes a SAE Level 2 system, meaning that total automation is not guaranteed and human supervision is mandatory at all times. Tesla maintains that its current labeling and disclosures properly indicate the nature and limitations of the features marketed as Autopilot.

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Nonetheless, ambiguity regarding driver-versus-system obligations when utilizing Tesla’s driver assistance program was one of the factors that motivated the NHTSA’s probe. With hands-free capability branded as “Full Self Driving”, yet necessitating constant oversight, regulators questioned the firm’s design choices and communications concerning the software’s capacities.

Build Upon Strengths While Addressing Weaknesses

In its latest update of its quarterly vehicle safety report, Tesla boasted that vehicles operating with Autopilot registered at least 7 times more miles driven before an accident occurred compared to the US average for non-Tesla vehicles. The company maintains that these findings indicate that road safety strengthens considerably when its sensors and algorithms assume limited control in optimal highway conditions.

“In the 4th quarter, we recorded one crash for every 4.85 million miles driven in which drivers were using Autopilot technology. For drivers who were not using Autopilot technology, we recorded one crash for every 1.40 million miles driven. By comparison, the most recent data available from NHTSA and FHWA (from 2021) shows that, in the United States, there was an automobile crash approximately every 652,000 miles”, the report states.

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However, abuses of Tesla’s automation software documented in media coverage and NHTSA crash data highlight that a lack of proper driver supervision can readily undermine those safety gains.

By cooperating with regulators to tackle weaknesses around driver disengagement, Tesla aims to build upon Autopilot’s strengths in assisting crash avoidance while addressing shortcomings that leave room for improvement.

Looking ahead, Tesla continues banking on progress towards the next generation of autonomous functionalities surpassing reliance on human monitoring via its Full Self Driving beta software. This upgrade package has faced scrutiny from regulators who are concerned about the risks associated with expanding testing onto public roads.

Tesla’s recall commitment demonstrates the company’s willingness to remedy ambiguity shortfalls today, even while its developers are pushing towards mega-disruptive autonomy goals for tomorrow.