Tesla has made waves in the car industry, recently becoming the most valuable US auto manufacturer. It reached this lofty position on the strength of its all-electric designs and a robust autonomous system called Autopilot. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is now investigating reports that Tesla’s vehicles are suffering from unintended acceleration.
When you hear the phrase “unintended acceleration,” you probably think of Toyota in the 2000s (if not Audi in the 1980s). Shortly after Toyota became the largest automaker in the world, the increasing number of unintended acceleration incidents triggered a US investigation. Toyota ended up suspending the sales of several models and recalled 2.3 million vehicles in 2010.
The Toyota situation didn’t garner much attention from regulators until multiple deaths had been linked to unintended acceleration. Tesla is a much smaller company, but it’s under more scrutiny than ever with its aggressive development of Autopilot. Independent investor Brian Sparks has reportedly submitted a petition to the NHTSA asking the agency to investigate some 127 instances of unintended acceleration. Those incidents include 110 crashes and 52 injuries. These are particularly serious accusations for Tesla as it tunes its cars to accelerate quickly — the Model S in Ludicrous Mode can go from 0 to 6 in less than three seconds.
It should be noted that Sparks, in his capacity as an investor, is shorting Tesla’s stock. That means he stands to make money if the company’s value goes down. So, he’s got an interest in damaging the company. However, he says he was moved to submit the petition after hearing about Jennifer Terry, who experienced unintended acceleration on two occasions. After the first, she asked Tesla for an immediate service appointment but could only get one several weeks out. While waiting, the car accelerated again and caused a four-car collision and two injuries. Sparks looked for additional complaints regarding unintended acceleration in Tesla vehicles and was surprised to see so many.
The NHTSA says the scope of the allegations is vast, covering 500,000 vehicles including the Model 3, Model S, and Model X. The agency is evaluating the petition and will decide if it warrants a formal probe of the company’s vehicles. It might take a long time to complete such an investigation as Tesla’s vehicles are more reliant on technology than others. CEO and founder Elon Musk often talks about how little profit Tesla is making. A drawn-out NHTSA investigation could cause major issues for the company. So far, investors aren’t especially spooked. Tesla was down just $2.99 (0.58 percent) at market close on Friday.
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