Tesla has been under investigation by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in the United States for a variety of safety issues involving their vehicles. The latest probe is into steering wheels that could detach from the steering column on as many as 120,000 Model Y SUVs. The agency received two complaints of a missing bolt holding the wheel to the steering column on new 2023 Model Ys, which caused the steering wheels to detach from the SUVs while they were being driven with low mileage. One of the incidents resulted in no injuries, but the other resulted in a harrowing experience for the driver who was able to pull towards the road divider.
The NHTSA has also launched a special crash-investigation team to investigate a fatal accident that occurred on February 18, 2023, involving a Tesla Model S and a ladder truck from the Contra Costa County Fire Department. The firetruck was parked diagonally on a highway to protect responders to an earlier accident that did not result in injuries when the Tesla ran into it. The driver of the Model S was killed in the crash, and a passenger was critically injured. Four firefighters were treated for minor injuries, and the $1.4 million ladder truck was damaged.
The firetruck probe 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 that are tending to other crashes. NHTSA has become more aggressive in pursuing safety problems with Teslas in the past year, announcing multiple recalls and investigations.
Automated driving systems are not always involved in the crashes that NHTSA investigates. For instance, the Ohio State Highway Patrol determined that a Tesla that hit one of its patrol cars in November was not operating on “any type of autonomous mode.”
The 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.
Chief of the Contra Costa County Fire Protection District, Lewis Broschard III, said his department is concerned about the risks that inattentive drivers pose to themselves, passengers, and first responders. He urged drivers to slow down and move over for emergency vehicles. Similarly, Rob Brown Jr., CEO of the International Association of Fire Chiefs, expressed concern over the reports of automobiles that may have been operating automated driving systems crashing into parked emergency vehicles at the scene of an emergency. He said that these unnecessary deaths, injuries, risks to firefighters, and loss of valuable equipment are all preventable.
The investigations are part of an ongoing effort by NHTSA to scrutinize Teslas more intensely in the past year, seeking several recalls and opening investigations. The agency pressured Tesla into recalling nearly 363,000 vehicles with “Full Self-Driving” software in February because the system can break traffic laws. The system is being tested on public roads by as many as 400,000 Tesla owners. But NHTSA said in documents that it has received 11 reports of crashes since January 2020 in which Tesla vehicles on Autopilot or Traffic-Aware Cruise Control hit parked emergency vehicles.