US Regulators Find No Fault in Tesla Vehicles in Unintended Acceleration Case

The United States’ National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has declined to grant a petition for investigation into reported incidents of sudden unintended acceleration (SUA). The decision impacts 662,000 Tesla vehicles.

The report, filed by a Tesla shareholder named Brian Sparks in December 2019, claimed that 2012-2020 model year Tesla Model S, Model X, Model Y and Model 3 vehicles accelerated without the owner intending them to. This could have caused dangerous situations ranging from unintentionally running red lights to rear-ending another vehicle. The regulatory body reviewed 232 reported instances of sudden acceleration incidents, which may have contributed to 203 crashes.

In an interview, Sparks called the number of unintended acceleration instances “absurdly high,” but he accepts the NHTSA’s decision. He says he filed the complaint because a social media acquaintance mentioned that she had experienced unintended acceleration in her Tesla vehicle and found the company to be unresponsive to her queries.

“If the NHTSA says there’s no defect, I consider the matter settled,” Sparks said.

Although he owns some Tesla stock, Sparks has also admitted to shorting it, basically betting that its value would fall. Going by historical trends, shorting TSLA seems to be a losing proposition. Tesla’s excellent year for sales was reflected in a stock rally that saw TSLA (its ticker symbol on stock exchanges) gaining by about 800% in 2020, which was impressive enough for it to gain a place in the S&P 500 index. The gains have strongly contributed to Elon Musk claiming the top slot in Bloomberg’s list of billionaires.

In the sudden acceleration case, the NHTSA ruled, the sudden acceleration was “caused by pedal misapplication. NHTSA found no evidence of fault in the accelerator pedal assemblies, motor control systems, or brake systems that contributed to the cited incidents.”

The NHTSA also failed to find that reported incidents were the result of a design flaw: “There is no evidence of a design factor contributing to increased likelihood of pedal misapplication. The theory provided of a potential electronic cause of SUA in the subject vehicles is based upon inaccurate assumptions about system design and log data.”

If the reports had gone through, it would have added to a long list of complaints about flaws in the design or manufacturing of the electric vehicles that have dinged Tesla in consumer safety reviews. Tesla has had to recall thousands of vehicles in China to fix a manufacturing defect in the Tesla’s steering assembly. It has also had to recall vehicles in the United States to fix issues with the roof and an improperly installed bolt in the steering assembly. Tesla is currently fighting a proposed class action lawsuit alleging that it has ignored or tried to downplay issues with the suspension in some vehicles.

Issues like these have caused Consumer Reports to downgrade most of Tesla’s models in its most recent annual Auto Reliability Survey. The survey relies partly on reports from vehicle owners.

The negative safety reports do not seem to have hurt Tesla sales much, however. It posted a record year with nearly 499,550 vehicles delivered, just short of its goal of 500,000 cars.

With its ruling, the NHTSA has concluded an investigation that was opened in January 2020. Tesla has not issued a statement on the ruling.