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Was ‘Phantom Braking’ Responsible For Tesla Fatality In Missouri Or Was It Another Issue?

Just how serious is Tesla's "phantom braking" problem? After hundreds of owners complained of their cars stopping at the wrong time, as on major highways or slowing unacceptably, there may have been a fatality related to the problem as a Tesla Model 3 stopped dead on I-70 in Missouri causing a three-car pileup that left one operator dead.

This has not been a good week for automatic braking systems. As reported over the weekend in Torque News, Honda has recalled about 1.7 million 2017-2022 Accords and CR-Vs for problems with their automatic braking systems (AEB). They are not alone. Nissan has also had reports of AEB trouble. Meantime, it looks like Tesla's "phantom braking" problem may have turned deadly.

’Phantom Braking’ A Serious Issue

“Phantom braking” looks like it has become quite serious as Yahoo News reports that a Tesla just stopped on an Interstate, causing a three-car crackup that left one dead. The crash occurred Sunday night on I-70 in Independence, Mo.

Independence Police are investigating the crash that killed a 74-year-old operator. Terry Siegel was driving a 2019 Tesla Model 3 that stopped dead on the Interstate and caused a three-car crash. Siegel was killed in the crash, according to Yahoo. A passenger in the Tesla was taken to a local hospital for treatment. The occupants of the second and third cars in the accident were not injured.

According to the Yahoo report, investigators for the Independence Police Department first believed the crackup was due to a mechanical problem that caused the Tesla to lose power. However, now they have walked back that theory. Jack Taylor, a spokesperson for the department, said they plan to do a deep dive into the Tesla's computer system to see what happened.

’Unusual And Unique’ Issue

The National Transporation Safety Board (NTSB), which probes incidents like this, called the crash "unusual and unique." The agency made the comment to a Fox news outlet after it had contacted the police department.

NTSB is the parent agency to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which has an open investigation involving complaints of “phantom braking” from hundreds of Tesla owners. They complained of the issue to the agency last month.

According to the NHTSA, Tesla owners reported their vehicles would just hit the brakes for no apparent reason. Some of the braking incidents occurred at highway speeds. The safety agency's probe was spurred by hundreds of Tesla owner complaints. The NHTSA probe is looking at the braking behavior in 2021-2022 Tesla Model Y and Model 3. While 2021-2022 models are at the heart of the probe, there have also been similar complaints from 2019 and 2020 Tesla owners

Reports indicated that the "phantom braking" phenomenon occurred when the drivers accessed their cruise control setting. There have also been other similar reports involving the Tesla AutoPilot system. The AutoPilot system is an autonomous control system that relies on Tesla's computer system.

Just What Is The Cause Of ‘Phantom Braking?’

According to the Yahoo report, the “phantom braking” problem could be with Tesla's AEB system. As reported by Torque News over the weekend, this is a feature not only in most new vehicles, including Teslas. The feature hits the brakes when sensors indicate a crash is imminent. The report also indicated that AEB was activated by oncoming vehicles, shadows, and passing vehicles. All were interpreted as dangerous obstacles.

There was no comment from Tesla or the safety agency. Elon Musk, Tesla's CEO, has commented that the AutoPilot system has been fixed and that updates will be rolled out to Teslas over the air.

Though this latest fatality may be attributable to AEB, others may be due to the AutoPilot system, including one California crash recently in which two people lost their lives. And, there have been other reported fatalities as drivers have activated the AutoPilot control. In one instance, drivers reported seeing a Tesla operator asleep behind the wheel as the vehicles sped down the highway. In another incident, a driver was reported reading a newspaper. Both of those incidents ended tragically. And, Teslas have had an affinity for first-response vehicles, crashing into police and fire vehicles. Tesla says it has corrected this problem with a software update.

Photo: Tesla

Marc Stern has been an automotive writer since 1971 when an otherwise normal news editor said, "You're our new car editor," and dumped about 27 pounds of auto stuff on my desk. I was in heaven as I have been a gearhead from my early days. As a teen, I spent the usual number of misspent hours hanging out at gas stations Shell and Texaco (a big thing in my youth) and working on cars. From there on, it was a straight line to my first column for the paper, "You Auto Know," an enterprise that I handled faithfully for 32 years. Not many people know that I also handled computer documentation for a good part of my living while writing YAN. My best writing, though, was always in cars. My work has appeared in Popular Mechanics, Mechanix Illustrated, AutoWeek, SuperStock, Trailer Life, Old Cars Weekly, Special Interest Autos, etc. You can follow me on: Twitter or Facebook.