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Tesla’s sudden accelerations were user error, US government says

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The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration declined to open a full investigation

Photo by James Bareham / The Verge

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has ended a year-long review of claims that some Tesla vehicles were accelerating without warning, saying there is not enough evidence to open a full investigation. While NHTSA received 246 complaints about this “sudden unintended acceleration” phenomenon, the agency says that “pedal misapplication” was the cause of the problem in every case for which it had data to review — user error, in other words.

“There is no evidence of any fault in the accelerator pedal assemblies, motor control systems, or brake systems that has contributed to any of the cited incidents,” the agency wrote in a summary published Friday. “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.”

Claims of so-called “sudden unintended acceleration” have dogged Tesla for years. The company settled most of a purported class action lawsuit in 2018 over the issue. NHTSA says it collected crash data and video from cars’ “black box” event data recorders and from Tesla itself. While 246 cases were reported, the agency did not specify the amount of cases for which it collected data. The issue was thought to affect some 662,000 vehicles across Tesla’s lineup.

The review was opened in January 2020 in response to a “defect petition” by Brian Sparks, an investor who was shorting Tesla’s stock (or betting that the price would go down). He corralled more than 100 complaints about the issue that had already been submitted to NHTSA, as well as similar events that had been covered in the press, and asked the agency to investigate.

“I believe Tesla vehicles have a structural flaw which puts their drivers and the public at risk. I further believe Tesla must know of this flaw and be unresponsive to it,” he wrote in December 2019. Sparks also took issue with Tesla’s reluctance to provide data about these acceleration events to owners. “This petition will show that, based on publicly available information, it appears Tesla vehicles have a Sudden Unintended Acceleration Problem and Tesla must know about this problem.”

Tesla responded to the review with a blog post that claimed there was no merit to the idea. “We investigate every single incident where the driver alleges to us that their vehicle accelerated contrary to their input, and in every case where we had the vehicle’s data, we confirmed that the car operated as designed,” the company wrote.

In a message to The Verge on Friday, Sparks said: “The rate of unintended acceleration reports remains particularly high in Tesla-made vehicles compared to other vehicles, however I trust the institutions of government. If NHTSA says there is no defect then I believe them. I thank NHTSA for evaluating the SUA allegations.”