Los Angeles Times
Steering wheel is focus of Tesla Model Y probe
Regulators investigate reports of equipment falling off while driving. The absence of a bolt is cited.
DETROIT — U.S. safety regulators are turning up the heat on Tesla, announcing investigations into steering wheels coming off some SUVs and a fatal crash involving a Tesla believed to have been operating with an automated driving system engaged when it ran into a parked firetruck in California.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said Wednesday that it is launching a crash investigation team to look into the Feb. 18 accident involving a Tesla Model S and a ladder truck from the Contra Costa County Fire Protection District.
The firetruck inquiry is part of a larger investigation by the agency into multiple instances of Teslas using the automaker’s Autopilot system crashing into parked emergency vehicles.
NHTSA has become more aggressive in pursuing problems with Teslas in the last year, announcing multiple recalls and probes.
The driver of the 2014 Tesla Model S was killed in the crash and a passenger was critically injured. Four firefighters were treated for minor injuries.
NHTSA is investigating how the Autopilot system detects and responds to emergency vehicles parked on highways. At least 14 Teslas have crashed into emergency vehicles nationwide while using the system.
Authorities said the California firetruck had its lights on and was parked diagonally on a highway to protect responders to an earlier accident.
A NHTSA spokeswoman said she couldn’t comment on an open investigation when asked whether the Teslas are posing a danger to emergency workers.
Earlier Wednesday, the agency posted documents revealing that it’s investigating steering wheels that can detach from the steering column on as many as 120,000 Model Y SUVs.
The agency said it received two complaints involving 2023 Model Ys that were delivered to customers missing a bolt that holds the wheel to the steering column. A friction fit held the steering wheels on, but they separated when force was exerted while the SUVs were being driven.
The agency says in documents posted on its website Wednesday that both incidents happened while the SUVs had low mileage on them.
In one complaint filed with NHTSA, an owner said he was driving with his family on Route 1 in Woodbridge, N.J., when the steering wheel suddenly came off Jan. 29, five days after the vehicle was purchased. The owner wrote that there were no cars behind him and he was able to pull toward the road divider. There were no injuries.
It was a “horrible experience,” the car’s owner, Prerak Patel, told the Associated Press. He said he was in the freeway’s left lane when the steering wheel came off and was lucky the road was straight and he was able to stop the car at the divider.
Messages were left seeking comment from Tesla, which is based in Austin, Texas, and has disbanded its media relations department.
At first a Tesla service center gave Patel a cost estimate of $103.96 to repair the problem. The service center apologized in what appear to be text messages posted on Twitter.
When Patel wrote that he had lost faith in Tesla and asked for a refund, the service center removed the charge.
Patel was later given the option of keeping the car or getting it replaced with a new one. Patel said he chose to get a replacement.
Patel said he’s a fan of Tesla Chief Executive Elon Musk and has invested a large chunk of his savings in the company’s stock, which fell 3% on Wednesday.
“My kids were a little scared to ride in a loaner Tesla and, as a parent, we are able to restore their confidence,” Patel said. He said he hopes Tesla will investigate and improve its quality control “so no other family experiences what we experienced.”
Detached steering wheels are rare but not unprecedented. In February, Nissan recalled about 1,000 Ariya electric vehicles because the wheels could come off the steering columns due to a loose bolt.
In addition to the Autopilot probe, NHTSA has opened investigations during the last three years into Teslas braking suddenly for no reason, suspension problems and other issues.
In February, NHTSA pressured Tesla to recall nearly 363,000 vehicles with so-called Full Self-Driving software because the system can break traffic laws. The system is being tested on public roads by as many as 400,000 Tesla owners.
The U.S. Justice Department also has asked Tesla for documents about the Full Self-Driving software and Autopilot.
Tesla says in its owners manual that neither Autopilot nor Full Self-Driving can drive themselves, and that owners must be ready to intervene at all times.
NHTSA has sent investigators to 35 Tesla crashes in which automated systems are believed to have been engaged. Nineteen people have died in those crashes, including two motorcyclists.