NHTSA Looking Into Tesla Vehicles Over 'Phantom Braking'

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has announced it is investigating 416,000 Tesla vehicles after receiving 354 individual complaints of unexpected braking.

America’s largest purveyor of all-electric vehicles was forced to cancel its push of version 10.3 of its Full Self-Driving (FSD) beta software last fall after receiving reports that it was creating problems for some users. Drivers were complaining that the update had created instances of phantom braking after the vehicle issued false collision warnings. However, things only seemed to get worse as complaints to the NHTSA grew more frequent after bumping FSD back to an earlier version.

It’s not clear if the deluge of reports that occurred between November and today were the result of Tesla mucking up the software fix or if attention from the media simply encouraged people to file more complaints with the agency.

I’ll be the first person to say that FSD (and most other advanced driving aids) are kind of a scam. Tesla may be the worst offender due to its legitimately irresponsible marketing language, especially the part about “Full Self Driving.” But I’ve been in Chevrolet Equinoxes where the car suddenly decides it needs to stomp on the brakes to avoid colliding with an obstacle that’s still 40 yards ahead. Vehicles manufactured by other brands have offered similar difficulties, especially when inclement weather some into play. So, whatever your thoughts and feelings happen to be about advanced driving aids, the bar for excellence remains low.

The NHTSA also seems to have developed a fixation with Tesla which leaves me kind of torn. On the one hand, I feel like the regulator favors legacy manufacturers with longer — let’s say — working relationships with relevant government personalities. Over the last few months, the automaker has been subjected to recalls and investigations pertaining to faulty defrosters, bad trunk latches, custom horn tones, rolling stops, and smacking into parked emergency vehicles. But Tesla is also beta testing on customers that paid extra for a feature that has habitually failed to live up to its name and just keeps getting more expensive — making sympathetic feelings harder to drum up.

Documentation shows that the NHTSA will be examining 2021-2022 MY Tesla Model 3 and Model Y vehicles. The agency summarized the complaints by saying issues typically take place while drivers are utilizing advanced driving aids, including adaptive cruise control, when 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,” the agency explained.

While this is not a recall, the preliminary investigation is the first step the NHTSA takes before issuing one. This usually hinges on the number of reports, whether or not the regulator can replicate the issue, and the level of risk it presents. For now, there don’t appear to be any injuries or even crashes associated with the apparent defect.

There’s been a lot of speculation as to what’s causing phantom braking. But the most popular theory is linked to the company’s decision to remove radar from newer models. While presumably a cost-cutting measure, Tesla CEO Elon Musk insisted that its vehicles could perform just as well without them by leaning on the exterior camera array.

[Image: Virrage Images/Shutterstock]

Matt Posky
Matt Posky

A staunch consumer advocate tracking industry trends and regulation. Before joining TTAC, Matt spent a decade working for marketing and research firms based in NYC. Clients included several of the world’s largest automakers, global tire brands, and aftermarket part suppliers. Dissatisfied with the corporate world and resentful of having to wear suits everyday, he pivoted to writing about cars. Since then, that man has become an ardent supporter of the right-to-repair movement, been interviewed on the auto industry by national radio broadcasts, driven more rental cars than anyone ever should, participated in amateur rallying events, and received the requisite minimum training as sanctioned by the SCCA. Handy with a wrench, Matt grew up surrounded by Detroit auto workers and managed to get a pizza delivery job before he was legally eligible. He later found himself driving box trucks through Manhattan, guaranteeing future sympathy for actual truckers. He continues to conduct research pertaining to the automotive sector as an independent contractor and has since moved back to his native Michigan, closer to where the cars are born. A contrarian, Matt claims to prefer understeer — stating that front and all-wheel drive vehicles cater best to his driving style.

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  • GMat GMat on Feb 19, 2022

    Recent article "To see Germany’s future, look at its cars” | The Economist. Guess they’re on fire

  • Joebaldheadedgranny Joebaldheadedgranny on Feb 23, 2022

    I wonder why Tesla is being singled out here? My wife's Acura occasionally behaves oddly when in ACC mode, presumably because the Mobileye cameras detect a threat or pattern that makes it hesitate. A bit irritating. NHTSA has declared war on Tesla for political reasons, this will show up as another issue two months from now.

  • Lou_BC I've I spent the past few days in what we refer to as "the lower mainland". I see Tesla's everywhere and virtually every other brand of EV. I was in downtown Vancouver along side a Rivian R1T. A Rivian R1S came off as side street and was following it. I saw one other R1S. 18% of new vehicles in BC are EV'S. It tends to match what I saw out my windshield. I only saw 2 fullsized pickups. One was a cool '91 3/4 ton regular cab. I ran across 2 Tacoma's. Not many Jeeps. There were plenty of Porches, Mercedes, and BMW's. I saw 2 Aston Martin DBX707's. It's been fun car watching other than the stress of driving in big city urban traffic. I'd rather dodge 146,000 pound 9 axle logging trucks on one lane roads.
  • IBx1 Never got the appeal of these; it looks like there was a Soviet mandate to create a car with two doors and a roof that could be configured in different ways.
  • CAMeyer Considering how many voters will be voting for Trump because they remember that gas prices were low in 2020–never mind the pandemic—this seems like a wise move.
  • The Oracle Been out on the boat on Lake James (NC) and cooking up some hella good food here with friends at the lake place.
  • ToolGuy Also on to-do list: Read the latest Steve S. fiction work on TTAC (May 20 Junkyard Find)