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Jun 19, 2018

U.S. regulators target Tesla's 'nag reduction' autopilot device

Tesla Motors Inc. logo is displayed at the Tesla Motors Inc. booth at the Cutting-Edge IT & Electronics Comprehensive Exhibition (CEATEC) at Makuhari Messe in Chiba, Japan, on Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2016. The show runs through Oct. 7. Photographer: Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg

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The Autopilot Buddy is marketed as a “nag reduction device” that can fool Tesla Inc.’s (TSLA.O) semi-autonomous driving system to circumvent a warning when a driver’s hands aren’t on the steering wheel, but U.S. regulators have another term for the product: “unacceptable.”

The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration on Tuesday said it was ordering the aftermarket device maker to cease selling the Autopilot Buddy because it could put drivers and others at risk.

A letter sent by NHTSA to the company, identified on the website autopilotbuddy.com as Dolder, Falco and Reese Partners LLC, orders it to respond by June 29 and certify that distribution and marketing of the product has ended. The company is not affiliated with Tesla.

The Autopilot Buddy website promises to reduce Tesla’s “nagging reminders” to drivers that they need to put their hands on the wheel in order to allow customers to "enjoy autopilot."

Despite those promises, NHTSA found the product “is intended to circumvent motor vehicle safety and driver attentiveness” NHTSA Deputy Administrator Heidi King said in a press release. “By preventing the safety system from warning the driver to return hands to the wheel, this product disables an important safeguard, and could put customers and other road users at risk.”

A Tesla spokesman said the company supports NHTSA’s action to force the company to end sales of the device.

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While fully self-driving cars are still in development, several carmakers including Tesla and General Motors Co. have developed suites of technology that automatically keep cars in their lanes and follow the vehicle ahead at a safe distance.

The companies require drivers to keep their hands on the steering wheel, even if the cars are at times largely driving themselves. In the case of the Tesla, the system monitors steering wheel movements to assess whether the driver is engaged.

Despite the Autopilot Buddy website’s assertion that the hands-off warnings are an impediment to owners, it also maintains a disclaimer saying: "This is not intended to be a hands-off device, your hands must remain on the wheel as directed by Tesla’s terms of ‘Autosteer’ user agreement."

A spate of crashes involving Teslas has thrust the issue of semi-autonomous driving features into the news. The National Transportation Safety Board is looking at a March 23 accident in California in which the system didn’t detect the driver’s hands on the wheel when it struck a highway barrier and killed him.

Autopilot Buddy’s website currently discloses that it is no longer taking orders inside the U.S. Dolder, Falco and Reese is registered to Carl Reese in California. A phone message and email to Reese asking for comment were not immediately returned.