Federal agency looking into Tesla driver complaints of sudden unintended acceleration

Key Points
  • The U.S. agency that can mandate vehicle recalls, NHTSA, is evaluating Tesla drivers' complaints of sudden unintended acceleration.
  • Historically, NHTSA receives myriad complaints about possible unintended acceleration incidents in a wide number of vehicles. When investigated, most have been attributed to driver error, such as misapplication of pedals. 
  • Tesla vehicles include new technologies like Autopilot, an advanced driver assistance system, and rapid acceleration.
Tesla Model 3
Source: Tesla

A division of the U.S. Department of Transportation is looking into driver complaints that Tesla electric vehicles may suddenly accelerate on their own.

CNBC has learned that an independent investor, Brian Sparks, submitted a petition to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and its Office of Defects Investigations asking them to look into the drivers' claims.

The petition includes a collection of 127 complaints that were either submitted to the government by Tesla owners, or others filing on their behalf. These complaints, when tallied, allege that unintended acceleration of Tesla electric vehicles may have contributed to or caused 110 crashes and 52 injuries.

Sparks said he conducted primary research and submitted the petition, which CNBC obtained, because he was moved by the personal story of Jennifer Terry. Sparks is currently shorting Tesla stock, but has hedged his bets and been long shares of Tesla in the past.

Terry was driving a new 2019 Tesla Model 3 in the summer of 2019, she says, when the vehicle's systems apparently failed and the car accelerated suddenly. She regained control of the Model 3, but was badly shaken by the incident.

She told CNBC she notified Tesla and requested an immediate service appointment, but the company offered her an appointment that was several weeks out. Just one week later, while she was waiting to have the car evaluated, the same thing happened to her again. This time, what Terry describes as sudden unintended acceleration (SUA) led to a four-car crash that injured two people. In her driver complaint to NHTSA in July 2019, Terry also said that some airbags in her vehicle failed to deploy.

Terry said on Friday that, although she has requested data and a resolution from the company, Tesla has yet to provide any diagnosis regarding what happened within her vehicle.

Sparks told CNBC, "I briefly looked on the NHTSA website to see if other Tesla drivers experienced the same. I didn't expect to see such a large number of [sudden unintended acceleration] complaints, most with similar fact patterns. That's when I decided to dig in."

NHTSA said, in a notice about the petition, that the scope of these allegations are broad and could apply to 500,000 Tesla vehicles including Model 3, Model S and Model X sedans and SUVs, made from 2013 through 2019.

Once it evaluates the contents of the petition, NHTSA -- which has the power to mandate vehicle recalls, or recalls of components and other technology in vehicles -- will decide if it should open a formal probe. If it decides not to offer a formal probe, it is expected to say why not, with an entry on a federal registry. The NHTSA investigator assigned to evaluate the petition is Ajit Alkondon.

Historically, the Department of Transportation (and NHTSA) receives myriad complaints about possible unintended acceleration incidents in a wide number of vehicles.

Both evaluated Toyota and Lexus vehicles in the 2000s to determine if defects in their electrical systems led to sudden acceleration and crashes. Many incidents that drivers ascribe to unintended acceleration, upon investigation, are found to be caused by driver errors, like pedal misapplication.

Tesla vehicles include newer technologies, such as the company's signature advanced driver assistance system, Autopilot, and "Ludicrous mode" acceleration, which allows drivers of some Model 3 variants to go from 0 to 60 mph in less than 4 seconds.

Tesla's press and investor relations teams did not respond to a request for comment.

Elon Musk could be in for a big pay day if Tesla stock continues to rise
Elon Musk could be in for a big pay day if Tesla stock continues to rise