Tesla’s new touchscreen drive selector doesn’t violate the rules, NHTSA says

Tesla’s decision to remove the gear-selector stalk from the steering wheel and automate shifting between park, reverse, neutral, and drive (PRND) does not violate any federal motor vehicle rules, a spokesperson for the National Highway Traffic Safety Agency told The Verge.

The gear selection via touchscreen is a backup while Tesla still works to fully automate the process. A video of the new touchscreen interface that will be available in refreshed versions of Tesla’s Model S and X surfaced earlier this week, causing a bit of a stir over the safety of using a touchscreen to control such basic, safety-critical functions.

But NHTSA says that Tesla isn’t violating any safety standards with its unorthodox approach to PRND, and it’s not aware of any problems “at this time.” The spokesperson said in an email (emphasis ours):

NHTSA is aware of the touch screen shift control Tesla developed for its Model S and other vehicles. A properly configured transmission shift control operated by means of a touch screen interface would not violate federal motor vehicle safety standards. Also, Tesla has certified compliance with all applicable safety standards. At this time, there are no known compliance concerns related to the shift control configuration.

The operative phrase is “at this time” because the refreshed versions of the S and X are only just now reaching customers. If problems do arise, NHTSA says it stands ready to act and urges Tesla owners to report any safety concerns to the agency at their website or by calling the vehicle safety hotline.

By law, all vehicles sold in the US must be self-certified by the manufacturer as meeting all applicable Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS). That certification is in the form of a label on the door jamb of each vehicle.

NHTSA is already investigating over two dozen crashes involving Tesla vehicles. Earlier this week, NHTSA said it was sending its special crash investigation team to probe two crashes in Michigan, including a crash involving a Tesla suspected of being in Autopilot mode when it smashed into a parked state police patrol car.

Tesla also recently agreed to recall more than 134,000 Model S sedans and Model X SUVs that will eventually suffer from faulty displays after pressure from NHTSA.

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