NHTSA opens probe into Tesla's 'phantom braking' issue following owner complaints

The highway traffic safety agency has received 354 complaints regarding it over the past nine months.

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YANTAI, CHINA - OCTOBER 17, 2021 - A Tesla Model 3 is displayed at the Tesla Experience store in Joy City, Yantai, East China's Shandong Province, Oct 17, 2021. In September 2021, Tesla China set a new record of 56,006 vehicles. (Photo credit should read Tang Ke / Costfoto/Barcroft Media via Getty Images)
Barcroft Media via Getty Images

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration announced the start of a new investigation into Tesla on Thursday — this time, in response to a flurry of complaints by owners that their vehicles would randomly and dangerously decelerate while at freeway speeds, which they've come to call "phantom braking."  

Per the NHTSA's Office of Defects Investigation (ODI), the agency has received "354 complaints alleging unexpected brake activation in 2021-2022 Tesla Model 3 and Model Y vehicles" over the past nine months. 

"The complaints allege that while utilizing the ADAS features including adaptive cruise control," the ODI summary reads, "the vehicle unexpectedly applies its brakes while driving at highway speeds. Complainants report that the rapid deceleration can occur without warning, at random, and often repeatedly in a single drive cycle."

As such, the ODI is launching this preliminary investigation "to determine the scope and severity of the potential problem and to fully assess the potential safety-related issues" with further steps to follow depending, of course, on what, if anything, the investigators uncover.

Many of the complaints have come very recently. The Washington Post notes that following one of its pieces published earlier this month, the "NHTSA received about 250 complaints about phantom braking during the following two weeks. That compared to 107 complaints in the prior three months — a steep surge of its own — and only 34 in the preceding 22 months."

“It’s when the traffic is coming towards me that it randomly throws on the brake,” Sally Bergquist, of Alexander City, Al, a 2021 Model S owner who experienced the phantom braking effect, told The Post. “This random braking is really concerning to me.” 

Tesla has had to issue a number of recalls for defects in its products in recent months, from software glitches to separating suspensions. Despite these issues, Tesla vehicles remain hot sellers in the EV marketplace and CEO Elon Musk remains steadfastly confident in his company's "Full Self-Driving" technology

“It’s not like some little feature,” Musk declared on Tesla's Q4 earnings call. “It’s like the most profound software upgrade maybe in history.”

This news comes in the immediate wake of Consumer Reports naming the Ford Mustang Mach-E its Car of the Year over the Model 3, and word that Musk on Thursday accused the SEC of harassment for its "endless" and "unrelenting" investigation into Tesla — not because his personal tweets (the subject of said SEC investigations) violated long-standing federal regulations, but because he is an outspoken critic of the government. Tesla could not be reached for comment in response to any of this as Musk dissolved the company's PR department in 2020.

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