Federal regulators have opened another safety probe targeting Tesla, based on reports that steering wheels could suddenly detach while the EVs are being driven.
The preliminary investigation, launched Wednesday by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, could lead to the recall of as many as 120,000 Tesla Model Y SUVs. The agency has so far received two reports of steering wheels coming off while the vehicles were in motion.
It is the latest in a recent series of safety-related issues resulting in both recalls and ongoing investigations involving the Texas-based automaker.
In one instance, NHTSA received a complaint by a motorist who was traveling on U.S. Route 1 in Woodbridge, New Jersey when “all the sudden steering wheel” detached. The incident resulted in neither damage nor injuries, the motorist said, adding “(I) was lucky there was no car behind and (was) able to pull on divider” between the roadway’s north and southbound lanes.
Owners Prerak and Neha Patel took delivery of their Model Y just five days before the incident occurred Jan. 29. They subsequently wrote a Twitter post that included images of the loose steering wheel, police investigating the incident and their EV being hooked up to a tow truck.
NHTSA already had received a similar complaint from another Model Y owner. According to the agency, “both vehicles received an end of line repair requiring removal and re-installation of the steering wheel.”
The agency stated on its website that a “friction fit maintained the connection between the steering wheel and the column splines during operation until separation. Sudden separation occurred when the force exerted on the steering wheel overcame the resistance of the friction fit while the vehicles were in motion.”
If the problem was specifically related to post-production repairs, that could limit the number of vehicles that NHTSA’s probe might look into. But the agency could also order a widescale recall to ensure that the steering wheel problem isn’t more widespread. NHTSA could issue an owner advisory calling for affected vehicles to be parked until repairs can be made.
This is just the latest safety problem involving Tesla vehicles. In February, NHTSA ordered a recall covering 363,000 of the automaker’s EVs equipped with the optional Full Self-Driving system. Regulators determined that the semi-autonomous technology could “exceed speed limits or travel through intersections in an unlawful or unpredictable manner.”
Tesla disputed some of the points raised by NHTSA but announced it would provide a software update to correct the problem.
Tesla faces other safety probes
As with a number of recent Tesla safety recalls, the automaker will revise the FSD system using smartphone-style over-the-air updates. If NHTSA were to order a recall of vehicles due to a steering wheel issue, however, it would require owners to come to Tesla service departments or wait for mobile repair units.
Tesla currently faces other problems. Another NHTSA investigation targets more than 800,000 EVs equipped with Autopilot, the automaker’s other semi-autonomous driving system. Meanwhile, Tesla is facing various lawsuits and regulatory probes meant to determine if it misled customers about the capabilities of both the Autopilot and Full Self-Driving systems.
The Model Y isn’t immune to odd things happening that could imperil its driver and passenger. Three years ago, one owner experienced the glass roof becoming detached from the vehicle while it was driving.
These issues throughout the years have created some fatigue month Tesla investors, but more more so recently. In the wake of today’s news, the stock has dipped more than 3%. This follows last week’s disappointing Investor Day meeting March 1 where the stock dropped from a close at $202.77 and after-hours traders beat the stock down overnight. It opened Thursday at $186.74. After a bit of a rally, the stock has settled in at the $189-$190 range in lunchtime trading, down 6.5% on the day.
The company’s seen the stock drop more than 37% in the last six months as CEO Musk continues to deal with Twitter issues that many believe are stealing time from pressing issues at Tesla, including production problems keeping the long-awaited Cybertruck from getting off the ground, updated designs for its existing models and more.
Tesla disbanded its public relations department and does not respond to media questions.