US investigates Tesla Autopilot, steering wheels that can be removed

DETROIT (AP) — U.S. safety regulators are firing on Tesla, announcing investigations into steering wheels coming off some SUVs and a deadly crash involving a Tesla suspected of using an automated propulsion system when it collided with a parked fire truck in California collided.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said Wednesday it is launching a special crash investigation team to investigate the Feb. 18 crash involving a Tesla Model S and a Contra Costa County Fire Department ladder truck.

The fire truck probe is part of a larger agency investigation into multiple cases of Teslas using the automaker’s Autopilot system crashing into parked emergency vehicles causing other accidents. NHTSA has become more aggressive in pursuing safety issues with Teslas over the past year, announcing multiple recalls and investigations.

The driver of the 2014 Tesla Model S was killed in the crash and a passenger was seriously injured. Four firefighters were treated for minor injuries and the $1.4 million ladder truck was damaged.

NHTSA is investigating how the Autopilot system detects and responds to emergency vehicles parked on highways. At least 14 Teslas crashed into emergency vehicles across the country while using the system.

Automated propulsion systems aren’t always involved in the crashes NHTSA sends investigators to. For example, the Ohio State Highway Patrol determined that a Tesla that hit one of its patrol cars in November was not operating in “any kind of autonomous mode.”

Authorities said the California fire truck had its lights on and parked at an angle on a highway to protect emergency responders in an earlier accident that left no injuries.

Lewis Broschard III, chief of the Contra Costa County Fire Protection District, said his department is concerned about the risks inattentive drivers pose to themselves, passengers and first responders.

“These unnecessary deaths, injuries, risks to firefighters and loss of valuable equipment are all preventable,” he said, urging drivers to slow down and transfer for emergency services.

“Recent reports of cars that may have operated automated driving systems crashing into parked emergency vehicles at the scene of an emergency are a serious concern for the safety of our firefighters and paramedics and the public we serve,” Rob Brown Jr. , CEO of the International Association of Fire Chiefs, said in an email.

An NHTSA spokeswoman said she could not comment on an ongoing investigation into whether the Teslas pose a danger to emergency workers.

NHTSA has been investigating Teslas more intensively over the past year, looking for several recalls and opening investigations.

Earlier on Wednesday, the agency posted documents revealing an investigation into steering wheels that can detach from the steering column on as many as 120,000 Model Y SUVs.

The agency said it had received two complaints in which 2023 Model Y was delivered to customers with a missing bolt holding the steering wheel to the steering column. A friction fit held the steering wheels, but they separated when force was applied while the SUVs were being driven.

The agency says so in documents posted on its website Wednesday that both incidents occurred while the SUVs had low mileage.

In a complaint filed with NHTSA, an owner said he was driving his family in Woodbridge, New Jersey, when the steering wheel suddenly came loose on Jan. 29, five days after the vehicle was purchased. The owner wrote that he could pull towards the roadblock. There were no injuries.

It was a “terrible experience,” the car’s owner, Prerak Patel, told The Associated Press. He said he was in the left lane of the highway when the steering wheel came off and he was lucky the road was straight and he was able to stop the car at the divider.

Messages were left seeking comment from Tesla, which is based in Austin, Texas.

Initially, a Tesla service center gave Patel a cost estimate of $103.96 to fix the problem. The service center apologized in what appear to be text messages posted on Twitter.

When Patel wrote that he had lost faith in Tesla and asked for a refund, the service center dropped the charges.

Patel was later given the choice of keeping the car or having it replaced with a new one. Patel said he had chosen a replacement.

Patel said he is a fan of Tesla CEO Elon Musk and invested much of his savings in Tesla stock, which closed 3% lower on Wednesday.

“My kids were a little scared to drive a loaner Tesla and as a parent we are able to rebuild their confidence,” said Patel. He said he hopes Tesla will investigate and improve quality control.

Free-standing steering wheels are rare in the industry, but not unprecedented. In February, Nissan recalled about 1,000 Ariya electric vehicles for a similar problem.

NHTSA has also opened investigations into Tesla sudden braking for no reason over the past three years, suspension problems and other problems.

In February, NHTSA pressured Tesla to recall nearly 363,000 vehicles with “Full Self-Driving” software because the system may violate traffic rules. The system is being tested on public roads by no fewer than 400,000 Tesla owners. But NHTSA said in documents it could take unsafe actions, such as driving straight through an intersection from an exit-only lane, going through a yellow traffic light without due caution, or failing to respond to speed limit changes.

The US Department of Justice has also asked Tesla for documents from Tesla on “Full Self-Driving” and Autopilot.

Tesla says in its owner’s manual that neither Autopilot nor “Full Self-Driving” can drive itself, and owners should be ready to intervene at all times.

NHTSA has sent investigators into 35 Tesla crashes where automated systems are suspected to have been used. Nineteen people died in those accidents, including two motorcyclists.


AP writers Olga Rodriguez in San Francisco and John Seewer in Toledo, Ohio contributed to this story.

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