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Greek Engineer Files NHTSA Petition To Require Tesla Software Update To Every Tesla Sold Since 2013

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Costas Lakafossis is an engineer and accident investigator based in Athens, Greece. He has filed a petition with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) asking that it recall every Tesla sold since 2013. Why? Because the cars are able to shift directly from drive into reverse without the driver needing to touch the brake pedal. “I am not turning against Tesla. I just wanted to highlight the dangerous deficiency of vehicles that can cost lives. I felt I had the responsibility to alert the US authorities,” he tells the Greek Reporter.

Lakafossis is not some nut job looking to attract followers on social media. In fact, at the moment he is one of the people investigating the collision between a passenger train and a freight train near Tempi, Greece, in February that killed 57 people. The passenger train ignored several signals warning of the train ahead. Investigators — including Lakafossis — are trying to determine why the passenger train was on the wrong track and why it failed to heed the warning signals.

Lakafossis says he began looking at the Tesla issue after a Tesla driver lost control of his vehicle in Athens as he was attempting to park outside his office. Instead of the car braking, it inexplicably accelerated, smashing against other cars and a wall. “I watched the video from a security camera. It was a horrifying accident. The driver felt betrayed by his smart car,” Lakafossis told the Greek Reporter.

As part of his investigation, he came across a video of a similar accident involving a Tesla in China in which two people were killed. He says similar accidents have happened in France and South Korea.

A Tesla Party Trick

Image Credit: Kyle Field

In the lengthy technical document submitted by Lakafossis to NHTSA, Tesla is accused of introducing “special features” that encourage sudden unintended acceleration events that have led to accidents and injuries. “One such ‘special feature’ is the ability of the car to stop and shift into reverse gear when the driver is ready to park, without the requirement of an actual brake pedal activation,” says Lakafossis. “There is no practical benefit for this potentially dangerous ‘party trick’.”

In his petition, Lakafossis points out that since the 1980s, cars have had what is known as a brake transmission shift interlock that requires drivers to apply the brakes before they can shift into reverse. He asserts the brake interlock feature reduces instances of sudden unintended acceleration in vehicles with automatic transmissions. The feature has been required in new vehicles since 2010. In fact, many of us have been conditioned through experience to press the brake pedal before engaging reverse gear.

“After proactively solving the problem of SUA accidents in the 1980s, today it seems that we are moving in the opposite direction, allowing a driver to select reverse gear while still driving forward without asking for a brake pedal application, actively encouraging drivers to enjoy ‘feet-off automatic braking and parking’,” Lakafossis says. He adds that the removal of both feet from the pedals is a major factor contributing to the increased risk of pedal misapplication errors, and points to a number of accidents in documents submitted to NHTSA.

Ultimately, Lakafossis recommends disallowing the current feature and requiring drivers to press the brake pedal before shifting from drive to reverse in Tesla automobiles. He suggests the easiest way to make the change would be through an over-the-air software update.

“As an immediate measure to enhance road safety, I hereby ask you to grant the petition to recall all Tesla cars in order to add a software interlock to their control system, requiring the driver to press the brake pedal before allowing the car to fully stop and reverse gear to engage,” wrote Lakafossis in the petition.

“Further measures concerning the [random] nature of automatic braking should also be considered, as it may encourage the occasional complete removal of the driver’s feet from the pedals, which has been found to be a necessary condition of all types of pedal misapplication errors.”

For its part, NHTSA says it will evaluate the petition and the allegations is contains. It will then consider them against its own field data to determine if the petition should be granted or denied. If the petition is granted, it will open a defect investigation, which may lead to a recall, Carscoops says.

Under ordinary circumstances, we might have reached out to Tesla to get its take on this petition, but Tesla doesn’t respond to PR inquiries, so we don’t even bother any more.

Common Sense Is Lacking

Tesla owners know Elon Musk’s fascination with what Lakafossis calls “party tricks.” Drivers can tell the audio system to send fart noises to any part of the car, an electronic version of the ever popular whoopee cushion. There is a light show feature available that flashes all the lights in sequence. That feature can now be shared wirelessly with other Teslas in close proximity.

But while the ability to shift into reverse without touching the brake is impressive, it does fall under the heading of a “party trick,” something to amaze and amuse your friends and neighbors with how unbelievably cool your Tesla is. As wondrous as that may be, it is unneeded if there is a risk of serious injury or death from using it. In the final analysis, a car is not a toy. It is a 2+ ton mobility device that can pose a serious risk to life and limb if used irresponsibly. If the transmission/brake interlock has been required since 2010, how has Tesla been allowed to sell cars that are not in compliance?

When he first heard about this, one of my colleagues took his Tesla out on the CleanTechnica test track where we perform evaluations of everything from e-bikes to supercars. Much to his surprise, he was indeed able to shift from drive to reverse without touching the brake pedal. He never realized such a thing was possible before because he, like most drivers, has been conditioned over the years to apply the brakes before shifting to reverse.

As my old Irish grandmother would say, in this case, Elon Musk and his merry pranksters have been too clever by half. We expect this situation to become the subject of an NHTSA recall action soon. There is simply no valid reason to allow this hazardous feature to remain uncorrected.

Hat tip to Dan Allard, who, when he isn’t baling hay or feeding chickens, has time to do things like read the Greek Reporter. 

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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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