NHTSA Reviewing Tesla Phantom Braking After Complaint Count Spikes

Tesla owners say their cars randomly brake at nearly five times the rate they did months ago.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has been cracking down on Tesla, forcing it to issue recalls for driver-assistance software that blows through stop signs—and just this morning, for problems with seat belt chimes. Tesla might soon be treated to another round in the recall ring, too, as the NHTSA has told media it is “reviewing” an exponential increase in complaints from Tesla owners of their cars slamming on their brakes without warning.

“Phantom braking,” as it’s known, is a phenomenon where a car’s advanced driving assistance system (ADAS) registers a false positive for a hazard in the vehicle’s path, and activates automated emergency braking, posing a risk of a collision to vehicles behind. It’s a possibility in any vehicle with ADAS but is most closely associated with Tesla’s SAE Level 2 ADAS systems, Autopilot and Full Self-Driving Beta. In the Model 3 and Model Y, these systems interpret their surroundings using input from cameras alone, Tesla having eliminated their radar sensor modules in May 2021.

2022 Tesla Model Y, Tesla

This elimination of sensor redundancy and subsequent software updates has resulted in a spike in phantom braking incidents, as observed by the Washington Post. It examined the NHTSA’s public complaints database and reportedly found that for the period of April through September 2021, no more than five phantom braking complaints were lodged each month. That figure leaped to 13 in October, before soaring to 51 in November. It cooled to 32 in December, then 24 in January, but that’s still nearly five times the rate of reports the NHTSA received prior to October 2021.

The significant delay between Tesla’s hardware change and the increase in phantom braking reports suggests the problem to be rooted in updates to Tesla’s ADAS, likely FSDB version 2021.36.5.2, which was rolled out October 23, 2021. A lack of transparency from Tesla (and its dissolved PR department) makes it difficult to confirm whether changes implemented as part of this patch are to blame for the apparent explosion of phantom braking incidents, though Tesla will be forced to cooperate with the NHTSA in a way that will let the feds determine when—and how—the problem likely began. This, along with a review of owners’ complaints, will determine if further action will be taken by the NHTSA.

2022 Tesla Model Y interior, Tesla

“NHTSA is aware of complaints received about forward collision avoidance and is reviewing them through our risk-based evaluation process,” commented NHTSA spokesperson Lucia Sanchez to WaPo. “This process includes discussions with the manufacturer, as well as reviewing additional data sources, including Early Warning Reporting data. If the data show that a risk may exist, NHTSA will act immediately.”

Any further action by the NHTSA will likely resemble recent recalls, which have been addressed with over-the-air software updates. Should the NHTSA find evidence of a problem Tesla can’t patch out, though, the controversial carmaker could, at last, be in for a reckoning over years worth of problems with Autopilot and Full Self-Driving Beta.

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