US officials probe Tesla's incredible detaching steering wheel

It could be worse, at least Autopilot is ... oh

If you needed another reminder that Tesla vehicles might not have the highest of quality control standards, the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said it is investigating steering wheels falling off of two low-mileage 2023 Tesla Model Ys. 

In its preliminary evaluation notice [PDF], the NHTSA's Office of Defects Investigation said it was aware of two reports of "complete detachment of the steering wheel from the steering column while driving." 

While only two incidents have been reported, the NHTSA said its investigation concerns some 120,000 2023 Model Y vehicles that may also suffer from the same issue.

In both instances, the NHTSA said the Model Ys were delivered to owners without the inclusion of a rather critical retaining bolt that prevented such rapid unscheduled disassembly of the wheel. That left friction fitting between the wheel and column splines to hold everything together, the NHTSA said, and "when the force exerted on the steering wheel overcame the resistance of the fiction fit" at least one of the owners ended up with a wheel right in his lap. 

Although details of the incidents weren't included in the Agency's PE notice, the document did contain a link to an NHTSA complaint [PDF] filed on January 29. That complaint appears to have been filed by Prerak Patel, who tweeted at Tesla and its CEO Elon Musk on January 29 about the incident.

Patel said in his complaint that his family received their 2023 Model Y on January 24, and just five days later Patel "was driving on highway and all the sudden steering wheel f[e]ll, was lucky enough there was no car behind," the NHTSA complaint document summarized, indicating that he was able to pull onto the divider and call police. 

Photos included in Patel's post show the wheel sitting in his lap, having detached right at the top of the column. 

Tesla owners: Time to bolt? 

It's worth noting this isn't the first time Tesla has dealt with issues from loose or missing bolts - nor even the first time the problem has dogged late-year Model Y vehicles. 

Late last month Tesla recalled [PDF] 4 percent of its 2022 and 2023 Model Y fleet - around 3,470 cars - in which the bolts holding the second-row seats weren't properly screwed in. As a result, Tesla said in its recall notice, "the seat belt system may not perform as designed in a collision, which may increase the risk of an injury for occupants seated in affected second-row seating positions."

In 2018, the company also recalled Model S vehicles manufactured before 2016 due to steering bolts that were made from aluminum subject to corrosion from road salt used in cold weather.

Bolts are the least of Musk Auto's concerns, though, as the NHTSA has been doing a deep dive into safety concerns around Tesla's Autopilot and full self driving software that has caused a number of accidents, including frequent collisions with roadside emergency vehicles. 

That probe, which began in 2021, was upgraded to a formal engineering analysis last year, leading to the software being "recalled" via an over-the-air patch to address concerns that Tesla software made the vehicles behave unsafely around intersections.

That investigation and associated recall have been back in the news lately, as yesterday NHTSA officials said they were launching a probe into a fatal February 18 Tesla accident after finding the Tesla Model S that slammed into a fire truck was likely using Autopilot software at the time. 

That probe will be part of the NHTSA's larger continued investigation into Autopilot and FSD safety claims, the AP reported. The crash, which killed the driver and injured a passenger and four emergency responders, occurred when the Tesla slammed into a fire truck that was parked diagonally across a road to block lanes while responding to another accident. 

The NHTSA said last year that Autopilot was involved in 70 percent of accidents in which automated driver assist software (ADAS) was being used. Tesla drivers may want to watch out for dangerous windows too. ®

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