The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has launched an investigation into Tesla’s Model Y SUV following two complaints that the steering wheels can detach while being driven. The probe covers an estimated vehicles from the 2023 model year. According to the agency, both incidents happened while the SUVs had low mileage on them and were delivered to customers with a missing bolt that holds the wheel to the steering column.
Detached steering wheels are rare in the auto industry, but not unprecedented. In February, Nissan recalled about 1,000 Ariya electric vehicles because the wheels could come off of the steering column due to a loose bolt.
The latest investigation adds to a long string of problems that Tesla is having with the U.S. road safety agency. In the past three years, NHTSA has opened investigations of Tesla’s “Autopilot” driver-assist system crashing into parked emergency vehicles, and problems with suspensions. At least 14 Teslas have crashed into emergency vehicles while using the Autopilot system. The agency is also investigating complaints that Teslas can brake suddenly for no reason.
In February, NHTSA pressured Tesla into recalling nearly 363,000 vehicles with “Full Self-Driving” software because the system can break traffic laws. The system, which cannot drive itself, is being tested on public roads by as many as 400,000 Tesla owners. But NHTSA said in documents that it can make unsafe actions such as traveling straight through an intersection while in a turn-only lane, going through a yellow traffic light without proper caution or failing to respond to changes in posted speed limits.
The U.S. Justice Department has also asked Tesla for documents about “Full Self-Driving” and Autopilot. NHTSA has sent investigators to 35 Tesla crashes in which automated systems are suspected of being used. Nineteen people have died in those crashes, including two motorcyclists.
Since January of 2022, Tesla has issued 20 recalls, including several that were required by NHTSA. The recalls include one from January of last year for “Full Self-Driving” vehicles being programmed to run stop signs at slow speeds.
In response to the latest investigation, Tesla has disbanded its media relations department, and messages seeking comment from the company have not been returned. The NHTSA says it will take appropriate action if it finds evidence of a safety defect.