Back in January, we reported on a Tesla Model Y owner, Prerak Patel from New Jersey, who claimed their steering wheel simply fell off while driving down the highway. Tesla eventually agreed to replace the vehicle after pressure from Patel’s posts on Twitter, but not before the internet became aware of the problem.
It appears the NHTSA has now caught wind of Model Ys with similar problems. Over the weekend, the agency’s Office of Defects Investigation (ODI) formally opened a probe into the Texas automaker over safety concerns related to steering wheels falling off.
According to the ODI, the only vehicle affected by the probe is the 2023 Tesla Model Y. NHTSA says that it is aware of at least two incidents of low-mileage vehicles where the steering wheels completely detached while in motion. Despite the limited number of incidents, however, the investigation does pertain to an estimated 120,089 total cars.
In both cases, the steering wheel was friction-fit to the steering column by the spline-and-key shaft. NHTSA says that the complaints indicated that the steering wheel’s retaining bolt was completely missing from the factory, so with the right amount of force, the steering wheels detached.
It would seem that the two incidents that triggered the probe do not include an earlier report from Jason Tuatara made in 2020 for the same issue. Likely because that incident did not take place in the U.S., nor was it a 2023 Tesla Model Y. That would mean at least three vehicles would have had the reported issue, one of which is outside of the NHTSA’s scope and regulatory purview.
Whether or not this preliminary investigation will yield any actionable items from Tesla is still an unknown, though other automakers have issued recalls in the past for a similar issue with just two reports. In 2018, Ford recalled 1.3 million vehicles over the risk of a steering wheel retaining bolt backing out—mind you, the NHTSA is alleging that the two affected vehicles, in this case, did not even have the bolt installed.
Tesla has a rather rocky relationship with the NHTSA. The automaker has had several dozen investigations into its vehicles by the agency over safety concerns, 11 of which involved emergency vehicles. Tesla pushed an over-the-air patch to its vehicles that was aimed at reducing the likelihood of a crash, however, the plan backfired after the agency demanded that Tesla justify its use of an OTA update to solve a safety concern rather than follow the standard procedure for a vehicle safety recall.
Regardless, steering wheels falling off isn’t exactly the type of thing you can fix with an OTA update. If the agency decides that Tesla needs to recall its vehicles over this issue, it will join the recent recalls of 362,000 vehicles over Tesla’s Full Self-Driving software and 3,470 vehicles with loose seat bolts.
If you want a new EV with a non-removable steering wheel, you might also want to scratch the 2023 Nissan Ariya EV off your list, because it was just recalled for improperly attached or completely-missing bolts that secure the wheel to the steering column.
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