DETROIT — U.S. auto safety agencies have opened an investigation into Tesla’s Model Y SUV after receiving two complaints that the steering wheels could come loose while driving.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says the probe will affect an estimated 120,000 vehicles as of the 2023 model year.
The agency says that in both cases, the Model Ys were delivered to customers with a missing bolt securing the 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 in documents posted to 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 with his family on Route 1 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 there were no cars behind him and he was able to drive to the roadblock. There were no injuries.
“It was a horrible experience, I was driving with family back from a mall and the steering wheel fell off in the middle of the highway,” said Prerak Patel. “I was driving in the left lane when this happened, I can’t move my car left or right. “However, I was lucky that the road was straight and my car was able to stop at the fork.”
Messages were left seeking comment from Tesla, which has disbanded its media relations department.
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 removed the charge and wrote that Tesla does not have a return policy, but that he could contact the sales and delivery team.
Patel was later given the choice of keeping the car or having it replaced with a new one, he said, and Patel chose to do so.
Patel said he is a fan of Tesla CEO Elon Musk and invested much of his savings in the stock, which fell 3% 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. “My family is doing well now and I hope Tesla investigates and improves the (quality control) so that no other family experiences what we went through.”
Detached steering wheels are rare in the automotive industry, but not unprecedented. In February, Nissan recalled about 1,000 Ariya electric vehicles because a loose bolt could have caused the wheels to come off the steering column.
Still, the latest NHTSA investigation adds to a long line of problems Tesla has with the US road safety agency. Over the past three years, it has opened an investigation into Tesla’s “Autopilot” driver assistance system crashing into parked emergency vehicles, as well as suspension issues. At least 14 Teslas have crashed into emergency vehicles while using the Autopilot system.
On Wednesday, the same day the report aired on problematic Tesla steering wheels, U.S. safety regulators said a Tesla that collided with a fire truck in California last month, killing the driver and injuring a passenger, as well as four firefighters, is under suspicion. of operating on one of the company’s automated drive systems.
In February, NHTSA pressured Tesla to recall nearly 363,000 vehicles with “Full Self-Driving” software because the system may violate traffic laws. The system, which cannot power itself, is being tested on public roads by as many as 400,000 Tesla owners. But NHTSA said in documents it can take unsafe actions, such as driving straight through an intersection while in an exit-only lane, going through a yellow traffic light without due caution, or failing to respond to changes in posted speed limits.
The US Department of Justice has also asked Tesla for documents from Tesla about “Full Self-Driving” and Autopilot.
The agency is also investigating complaints that Teslas may brake suddenly for no reason.
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.
As of January 2022, Tesla has issued 20 recalls, including several required by NHTSA. The recalls include one from January last year for “Full Self-Driving” vehicles programmed to run stop signs at low speeds.
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