Dan O’Dowd examines NHTSA’s recall of Tesla Full Self-Driving and calls on the California state government to act to keep the public safe from this dangerous and defective software. 

Dan’s article was published in CalMatters, 16 March 2023, and can be read here


California’s Office of Traffic Safety needs to do what the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration so far failed to achieve: Keep Californians safe from Tesla’s flawed Full Self-Driving beta software.

nationwide recall of 362,758 Tesla vehicles equipped with Full Self-Driving, or FSD, software didn’t go far enough. Worse, NHTSA has been handling Tesla with kid gloves.

Specifically, the recall indicated that the software may allow the vehicle to act unsafe around intersections, such as traveling straight through an intersection while in a turn-only lane; entering a stop sign-controlled intersection without coming to a complete stop; or proceeding into an intersection during a steady yellow traffic signal without due caution. The vehicle may respond insufficiently to changes in posted speed limits. And the FSD software does not adequately account for the driver’s adjustment of the vehicle’s speed to exceed posted speed limits.

Still, numerous issues remain with the recall:

  • Teslas with FSD software are still on the road, and the company hasn’t even asked owners to turn the software off and not use it.
  • Tesla has said it will deliver its fix for the defects remotely, but hasn’t provided details about how or when that will be done.
  • For its part, NHTSA hasn’t given Tesla a deadline to make the fixes.
  • Moreover, neither NHTSA nor Tesla has put a review process in place to guarantee the software fixes are effective.
  • In fact, Tesla’s software update could actually exacerbate problems in the code or even lead to other unintended effects. (As a software developer myself, I’m painfully aware that glitches can cascade in unpredictable ways.)

California deserves better. If NHTSA is going to allow Tesla to soft pedal the dangerous flaws in its FSD beta software, California’s OTS needs to act with fast, decisive courage.

The state already helped lead the way toward holding Tesla accountable with the passage of state Sen. Lena Gonzalez’s Senate Bill 1398, which took effect in January. The new law essentially bans Tesla from advertising its vehicles as Full Self-Driving.

A Tesla shareholder lawsuit filed in late February created even more momentum to hold Tesla accountable, accusing the company, Elon Musk, et al., of making false and misleading claims about Tesla’s self-driving capabilities.

NHTSA only negotiated the voluntary recall with Tesla after a Super Bowl TV ad, sponsored by The Dawn Project, criticized NHTSA’s continued inaction. The commercial showed what happened when we put Tesla’s FSD to the test, and the results were alarming.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for self-driving vehicles. I believe they’re the wave of the future for an efficient transportation system. In fact, I happily own several Teslas – but I don’t rely on their faulty FSD capability.

California has served as an incubator for self-driving vehicle technology. You can’t walk or drive down the streets of San Francisco, for example, without seeing them in action.

But there is a big difference between responsibly testing the technology, as other companies have done, and irresponsibly loading hundreds of thousands of Teslas with the beta version of software that Tesla seemingly knew was flawed.

Tesla would deserve more credit if it was transparent and conscientious about its response to those flaws. But stonewalling followed by a half-hearted recall – with no clear plan for improvement – shows neglect for California Tesla drivers, not to mention complete disregard for other motorists, cyclists and pedestrians.

Tesla FSD is dangerous. The state of California has the power to keep this menacing software off the road unless and until it is proven safe.