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U.S. agency examining Tesla unintended acceleration complaint

by Ace Damon
U.S. agency examining Tesla unintended acceleration complaint

DETROIT –
The U.S. government's auto safety agency is investigating allegations that all three Tesla electric vehicle models can suddenly accelerate on their own.

An unidentified person asked the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for an investigation into the problem. An agency document shows 127 complaints from owners to the government, including 110 accidents and 52 injuries.

The agency said it will review claims covering about 500,000 Tesla vehicles, including the Model 3, Model S and Model X models between 2013 and 2019. The agency's investigative office will evaluate the petition and decide whether to open a formal investigation.

The messages were left on Friday seeking Tesla's comments.

NHTSA is already investigating three December accidents involving Tesla vehicles, in which three people were killed. The agency's special accident investigation unit sent teams to Gardena, California, and near Terre Haute, Indiana, to investigate two fatal accidents. Another accident in Connecticut is also under investigation.

Frank Boris, former NHTSA chief investigator for security defects, said the number of complaints cited in the petition is unusual and deserves further investigation.

"The sheer number of complaints would certainly get my attention," said Boris, who now runs a car safety consultancy.

Tesla's owners communicate with other owners on Internet and social media forums, and that can influence the number of complaints, he said.

He said the timing of the petition is good, because the agency needs to take a "deeper dive" into Tesla's security.

Some of the unintended acceleration complaints, which have yet to be verified by NHTSA, claim that the car's electronic components did not work properly.

For example, an owner in San Clemente, California, told NHTSA that in November 2018, a Model X SUV accelerated on its own to full power during a U-turn on a city street. The driver hit the brakes, but the SUV accelerated in a fraction of a second, according to the complaint. The driver claimed that something in the Tesla system "triggered a spontaneous and sudden acceleration, resulting in this collision".

The SUV crashed into a parked vehicle, the airbags inflated and the owner had a major abdominal contusion and several small bruises on his chest, according to the complaint. Persons who file complaints with the NHTSA are not identified in the agency's database.

The driver asked NHTSA to find out if Tesla's complaints had common elements, including parking or cornering at low speeds.

In another accident in May 2013, the owner of a Model S sedan in Thousand Oaks, California, complained that when parking in a parking space, the car suddenly accelerated on its own.

The Model S passed a parking block and curb and hit a cement lamppost. The airbags inflated, but no one was injured, the complaint said.

Three weeks after the accident, the owner received a letter from Tesla saying that the accelerator was depressed to 48% before the accident and 98% at the time of impact. The owner still believes the car accelerated on its own, the complaint said.

Anyone can ask NHTSA to investigate an automotive safety issue, and the agency said in a statement on Friday that it encourages people to report concerns.

In the other Tesla accidents that NHTSA is investigating, authorities are trying to determine whether the cars were operating on the Autopilot, a system designed to keep the car on track and at a safe distance from other vehicles. The autopilot can also change lanes on its own.

Separately, the National Transportation Safety Council will hold a hearing on February 25 in a fatal accident in Mountain View, California, involving a Tesla who was operating on the company's driver assistance system.

Tesla has said repeatedly that his autopilot system is designed only to help drivers, who still need to pay attention and be ready to intervene at all times. The company claims that Teslas with Autopilot is safer than vehicles without it, but warns that the system does not prevent all failures.

NHTSA's accident program inspected 23 accidents involving vehicles that the agency believed to be operating in some form of partially automated advanced driver assistance system. Fourteen of these cases involved Tesla models. The team investigates more than 100 accidents a year.

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