NHTSA Petition Filed Regarding “Sudden Unintended Acceleration” Claims Regarding Tesla Vehicles

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Update: This article lacks important context on the person who submitted the petition, broad history on sudden unintended acceleration, and Tesla. Another article is in the works, but for now, it’s worth reading the critical comments under the article more than anything else.

Update #2: We’ve published a new article on this topic: “That NHTSA Tesla ‘Sudden Unintended Acceleration’ Petition? Created By A TSLA Short Seller Who Doesn’t Own A Tesla.” From what we’ve seen, there is so far no indication that there’s an actual technical problem on Tesla’s side, and there’s a lot of historical and technical context indicating that claims of sudden unintended acceleration probably stem from driver error. Also, the petition to the NHTSA was reportedly submitted by a Tesla short seller who doesn’t own a Tesla. —Zach Shahan

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) says it is reviewing a petition that claims every Tesla Model S, Model X, and Model 3 sold in America since 2012 is defective and should be recalled. Why? Because, the petition alleges, any of those nearly half million cars could accelerate suddenly, putting drivers, passengers, and pedestrians at risk of injury.

According to Consumer Reports, the petition cites 127 complaints, including 110 crashes and 52 injuries. Included in those incidents is a complaint from the owner of a 2017 Model S who reported two sudden acceleration incidents in a period of three months. While slowly pulling into a parking space, he says his car experienced “uncontrollable acceleration,” resulted in cracked ribs and $18,000 in property damage. In a November of last year, the owner of a 2015 Model S was driving on a highway at about 70 mph when the car suddenly accelerated and slammed into the rear of the car ahead hard enough to activate the air bags.

So, who filed this petition? NHTSA won’t say. When asked by Consumer Reports for that information, the agency issued the following statement: “As is the agency’s standard practice in such matters, NHTSA will carefully review the petition and relevant data. NHTSA encourages the public to contact the agency with safety concerns.” It said if, after its review, it decides to open a formal defect investigation, the petition will be published in full on its website.

According to the New York Times, on January 17, NHTSA released a redacted version of the petition that said, “Tesla vehicles experience unintended acceleration at rates far exceeding other cars on the roads.” It went on to urge NHTSA “to recall all Model S, Model X and Model 3 vehicles produced from 2013 to the present.”

David Friedman, vice president of advocacy at Consumer Reports and former NHTSA official says the number of complaints received may appear small compared to the number of vehicles involved but is not out of line with the number of complaints that have led to large recalls in the past.

“If Tesla equipment or software is resulting in unintended acceleration, that puts consumers at serious risk,” says Ethan Douglas, a senior policy analyst for Consumer Reports in Washington, D.C. “Tesla has previously put features in the hands of consumers that didn’t do nearly enough to account for safety, which is why it’s especially important for NHTSA to quickly get to the bottom of what’s happening here.”

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Sudden unintended acceleration is scary stuff. Many will remember when Toyota was the object of such complaints. In the end, Toyota paid a $1.2 billion fine to resolve those complaints. And yet, driver error can play a part in such incidents. It’s unclear how much that’s been the case in the past — whether with Toyota or others — and it’s unclear how much the Tesla incidents are driver errors and perception problems versus an actual bug or two. So far, Tesla has not responded to the news about the NHTSA investigation.

Readers should be aware that NHTSA has taken no action on the petition yet. We do not know who filed the petition or if there is an agenda behind it. Some might speculate this is a hatchet job put together by short sellers, fossil fuel interests, or other automakers in an attempt to slow the Tesla juggernaut by promoting fear, uncertainty, and doubt.

Certainly in the supercharged political climate of today, where the alleged president of the United States uses a Sharpie to alter official weather maps in order to soothe his too easily bruised ego, almost anything is possible. We will have to wait for NHTSA to act before we know more about who or what is behind the petition and what remedial action, if any, Tesla will have to take to address the sudden-unintended-acceleration issue.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

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