First of all, I’ll say that I think we f***ed up by publishing an article on this topic that lacked important context and included misleading framing. I think that stemmed from trusting the reporting of a couple of normally good and thorough publications, and also from not digging deeply enough into the story independently.
The story concerns a petition someone submitted with the NHTSA regarding “sudden unintended acceleration” (SUA) incidents in Tesla vehicles. I’ll get to SUA in a moment, and also Tesla hardware and software, but there are two things to address first. One is the person who submitted the petition, and the other is history on this topic related to Tesla and related to the broader auto industry.
Tesla Short Seller Files Negative Petition On Tesla & Promotes It To The Media. And Water Is Wet.
First of all, it seems this story was originally covered by CNBC (which has a history of negative Tesla coverage), and that article mentioned that the person who created the petition is a Tesla [TSLA] short seller. That’s a person who is financially betting that the stock price will go down. As far as I’m aware, there is no law preventing short sellers from pushing negative talking points regarding the companies they are shorting. However, there is a known problem of this happening.
This Tesla short seller, Brian Sparks, reportedly does not own a Tesla himself. Nonetheless, he has collected claims of SUA in Tesla vehicles and submitted them in a petition to the NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration). This is something anyone can do to ask that a matter be investigated. I’ll leave you to try to determine why such a person would do that when they don’t own the vehicle in question but do short the company’s stock.
CNBC noted that of the “127 complaints” included in the petition, some were “submitted to the government by Tesla owners” and some were in some way filed “on their behalf.” It’s unclear what the breakdown was between these different methods (126:1 or 1:126 are both possibilities, as well as everything in between). If I wanted to try to smear Tesla (or any other automaker) via an NHTSA “investigation” forced by a petition, I don’t think it would be very hard to search the interwebs for loose claims that a Tesla (or other vehicle) accelerated “on its own.” It is not that uncommon for people to hit the accelerator when they actually meant to hit the brake. It is also not that uncommon for people to not want to admit that they screwed up and caused an accident. Furthermore, if you wreck a car worth $40,000–140,000, there’s a good chance you want to find a way for insurance to cover the damage without penalizing you for driver error and also not have your wife think you’re a moron who can’t have nice things. “The car did it by itself! I swear!”
We currently have four unanswered questions: 1) Why is a non-Tesla owner gathering claims of SUA regarding Tesla vehicles and packaging them up into a petition for the NHTSA? 2) Where did the claims actually come from? 3) Why is Sparks shorting TSLA? 4) When did he start shorting TSLA?
I guess we could throw in: What does Sparks expect negative headlines about an NHTSA investigation and “potential recalls” of ~500,000 Tesla vehicles will do to the stock price?
Okay, we all know the answer to that one.
A History of Sudden Unintended Acceleration?
First of all, what’s the history of SUA in general?
Well, the term was basically coined in the 1980s, and the problem stemmed back to the 1950s or earlier. (Most likely, the problem stems back to the first vehicle with an accelerator pedal.) As I understand it, from way back then to today, the vast majority of SUA claims come from people who, it is later determined, accidentally stepped on the accelerator pedal.
The concern rose from the ashes from 2000 to 2010 with regard to Toyota and Lexus vehicles. Initial investigations could not conclude Toyota/Lexus was at fault for the accidents. However, in later years, it was discovered that encroaching trim in the 2004 Toyota Sienna could block the accelerator pedal from fully returning to its starting position, and then it was later determined that floor mats with poor alignment could push the accelerator pedal down. “In March 2014, the Department of Justice issued $1.2 billion of financial penalties against Toyota in a deferred prosecution agreement.”
We now have two issues to consider: That case surely gave unwarranted confidence to people driving all different vehicle brands who committed driver error themselves but thought the vehicle did (or wanted to blame the vehicle). The problem of drivers sometimes accidentally stepping on the accelerator instead of the brake is a problem that has not disappeared and likely never could disappear as long as humans are responsible for driving. It happens — and more so if your cognitive abilities are not top notch or you are distracted in some way, factors which also might make it easy to conclude the vehicle was at fault, not you.
With regards to Tesla specifically, it appears that Tesla drivers who made honest mistakes as well as people who want to see Tesla (or at least TSLA) go down have gone after Tesla on this topic for years. Here’s a 2018 response from Tesla on the matter:
“We investigate the vehicle diagnostic logs in every accident in which a driver claims their car ‘suddenly’ and ‘unexpectedly’ accelerated, and in every case the vehicle’s diagnostic logs confirm that the vehicle operated as designed. Accidents involving ‘pedal misapplication,’ in which a driver presses the accelerator pedal by mistake, occur in all types of vehicles, not just Teslas. The accelerator pedals in Tesla vehicles have two redundant sensors that clearly show us when the pedal is physically pressed down, such as by the driver’s foot.”
In other words: The drivers made the mistakes, and we’ve got the receipts.
In fact, there have been several NHTSA unintended acceleration investigations covering this period of Tesla production, all of which found it to be pedal misapplication by the driver, not actual SUA caused by the car itself.
Unless there’s an opposite conclusion from a legitimate source that Tesla vehicles were at fault in any such cases, it appears that it’s really only logical at this point to assume innocence and recognize that humans make mistakes. As Tesla noted, this driver error occurs in all types of vehicles and has for decades.
A longtime Tesla enthusiast who has owned Tesla vehicles since the Roadster days and was a moderator on the most popular Tesla forum for years, Bonnie Norman, decided in March of last year (when this was apparently a controversy as well) to go to a top technical source to learn more about the matter. Her source is a well known hacker in the Tesla community who once got a nod from CEO Elon Musk regarding his hacking skills, and who has broken news about Tesla a number of times after poking around in the vehicle code and diving deeply into Tesla hardware (like Tesla batteries). He is known to be both critical and congratulatory, depending on the topic, and I would consider him to be highly objective and impartial.
This source, Jason Hughes, has investigated previous claims of SUA in Tesla vehicles and in every case found the driver to be in error, not the vehicle.
It's a fancy report! But the report is based on bad input. I thought I'd ask someone who is independent of @Tesla & has examined a number of sudden acceleration claims when an owner has asked him to do so. His response? Total. BS.
— Bonnie Norman (@bonnienorman) March 18, 2019
Furthermore, he has offered to pony up $500 if anyone can prove SUA in a Tesla. As of this forum post, he was 17 for 17 in such bets and hadn’t lost a dime.
He also wrote, “Disclaimer – You can’t win this bet. I’m 17 for 17 so far on log pulls related to Tesla SUA claims (most for insurance company contacts).” As it turns out, Tesla owners can actually pull data logs from their cars. These logs indicate whether an accelerator pedal was depressed by someone pushing on the pedal (with their foot, for example) or by the vehicle itself deciding it was time to accelerate (as happens on Autopilot).
There’s much more in this long forum thread, and I intend to go through it further, but the core conclusions seem to be obvious by now:
- No one has proven SUA in a Tesla vehicle leading to an accident.
- Many people have assumed they experienced SUA in a Tesla, but it turned out to be driver error.
- Many people have assumed they experienced SUA in non-Tesla vehicles, but it turned out to be driver error.
- Toyota/Lexus had an issue once upon a time with trim/floormats causing SUA, but it appears that’s not the issue here, and it seems highly unlikely another automaker would run into that problem after seeing Toyota’s $1.2 billion criminal penalty related to this issue. (Also, as a Tesla Model 3 owner myself*, I’ll note that the industry-installed floormats aren’t movable. They cannot slide over the accelerator pedal as far as I can see.)
One final set of conclusions that I think bears repeating: the person who filed this petition with the NHTSA and whom CNBC interviewed is or was shorting Tesla stock. At the time that the news broke, he was betting the stock price would go down.
Perhaps it’s time for SUA claims to retire and go for a long sleep in the FUD fields.
*If you’d like to buy a Tesla Model 3, Model S, or Model X and get some free Supercharging miles, feel free to use my special, magical, unicorn-blessed referral code: https://ts.la/zachary63404. You can also get a $100 discount on Tesla solar with that code. There is currently no use for a referral code when putting down a reservation for a Cybertruck or Model Y.