What Is Tesla’s “Elon Mode” and Why Is the Government Worried About It?

The Department of Transportation's NHTSA is "concerned" about a setting in Tesla vehicles which could be highly unsafe.

The Department of Transportations’s National Highway Traffic Safety Association has sent a special order to X owner Elon Musk’s electric car manufacturer Tesla, demanding that the company hand over data relating to a secret configuration known as “Elon Mode”.

The Tesla setting – originally discovered by a hacker back in June – disables a feature that “nags” you to ensure your hands remain on the wheel when the car is using one of the driver assistance systems, which includes autopilot.

It’s unclear at the moment exactly how many cars or drivers have access to this setting – but it seems that it’s enough to make the NHTSA “concerned” about its potential impact on driver safety.

What Is Elon Mode?

“Elon Mode” is a feature that blocks Tesla vehicles from “nagging” their drivers, through a variety of different means, to stay alert and have their hands on the wheel at all times.

When a Tesla isn’t in “Elon Mode” and is using one of the company’s driver assistance tools, such as Autopilot or Tesla’s Full-Self Driving (FSD) software, the vehicle will initially display a symbol on its touchscreen nudging the driver to grab the wheel.

If the command is ignored, then a loud beeping noise commences, which is the second stage of nagging. After that, if the driver’s hands are not placed on the wheel, the car can switch out of the mode that allows it to drive autonomously.

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The name was coined after a hacker – who claimed to be driving a company-owned Tesla – referred to it as “Elon Mode” back in mid-June.

Musk recently filmed a live stream of himself beta-testing the company’s new FSD software in California. At many points, his hands were not on the steering wheel.

It is not clear whether “Elon Mode” was activated at this point, but his actions would seem to violate his company’s policies that ensure passengers remain in control of their vehicles, regardless of how the vehicle is configured.

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Why Does the NHTSA Want to Know More?

The NHTSA said in a recent filing on its website that it is “concerned that this feature was introduced to consumer vehicles and, now that the existence of this feature is known to the public, more drivers may attempt to activate it.”

The agency said that the “relaxation of controls” could result in “greater driver inattention and failure of the driver to properly supervise Autopilot.”

Tesla was given an August 25 deadline to hand over all of the data demanded by the agency. According to CNBC, the company replied on time and then asked that the response be made confidential.

Elon Musk: One Drive, One Doxing, One Dodged Fare

The live-streamed test drive mentioned early on in this article, as car rides go, was rather eventful. A lack of hands on the steering wheel was just one example of irresponsible behavior that made headlines.

The question of whether Musk would receive a fine for using his phone while driving – which is banned in California – was answered after a local police officer told The Verge that there would be no action taken as there was no in-person witness, Insider reports.

Musk was also criticized by some for appearing to inadvertently dox fellow tech mogul and soon-to-be cage match opponent Mark Zuckerberg. The Tesla chief googled his address on a console that could be seen in the video.

However, Musk pointed said that the act “can’t really be considered doxing if we just Google his house”.

The final point of note that took place during the short livestream was Musk almost running a red light in the car, with the CEO having to hit the brakes to stop the car’s FSD software from driving on. Perhaps it’s time for some more iterating.

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Written by:
Aaron Drapkin is Tech.co's Content Manager. He has been researching and writing about technology, politics, and society in print and online publications since graduating with a Philosophy degree from the University of Bristol six years ago. Aaron's focus areas include VPNs, cybersecurity, AI and project management software. He has been quoted in the Daily Mirror, Daily Express, The Daily Mail, Computer Weekly, Cybernews, Lifewire, HR News and the Silicon Republic speaking on various privacy and cybersecurity issues, and has articles published in Wired, Vice, Metro, ProPrivacy, The Week, and Politics.co.uk covering a wide range of topics.
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