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Tesla's Gear-Shifting Problems Known Long Before Angela Chao's Death

Photo: Rich Fury (Getty Images)
Photo: Rich Fury (Getty Images)

Billionaire and sister to former Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao, Angela Chao, drowned in her Tesla Model X after accidentally reversing into a pond on a 900-acre Texas ranch last month. She’d reversed her Tesla Model X when she meant to driveforward during a K turn — a common problem with the vehicle among owners.

Chao had told friends that she’d mixed up “drive” and “reverse” several times in her car before the fatal accident, and it seems she is not alone, according to Business Insider:

Business Insider found 12 complaints related to the Tesla reverse function in a database of automobile consumer complaints kept by the US Department of Transportation.

Seven of those complaints were from people who said the way Tesla had designed the gearshift was confusing, resulting in them sometimes putting the car in drive when they meant to put it in reverse or vice versa. The other five complaints were from people who said their cars appeared to switch between drive and reverse without warning.

The issue has also found its way to Tesla forums, where one Tesla owner in 2022 wrote that they had accidentally “shifted to reverse instead of drive by mistake” three times in the two years they’d had the car.

Another Tesla owner wrote in 2022 that they “just nearly had an accident” because of confusion over how to put the car in reverse. “Within the first month of having my car I did something similar,” another user responded.

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BI doesn’t clarify whether Chao was driving a pre-2021 vehicle, or the post-2021 vehicle with the goofy touch screen and complete lack of indicator and PRND stalks — but because the issue revolves around the screen shifting problem, we can assume it was the latter. However, BI found complaints about both modes of gear shifting:

Prior to late 2021, drivers of all Teslas shifted into reverse by depressing the brake pedal and flicking a gear stalk to the right of the steering wheel up — a motion that some complainants said was confusing because, for some models and years, the same motion on the gear stalk disengages the car’s autopilot mode when the brake is not depressed.

One driver of a Tesla Model Y said they accidentally put the car in reverse in 2022 while waiting at a stoplight, narrowly avoiding a collision.

When the light turned green, they “instinctively” flicked the right-hand gear stalk upward to disengage autopilot so they could turn left, they told the DOT.

“Unfortunately, this ‘conditioned’ behavior of mine inadvertently put the car in reverse!! I pressed the accelerator and nearly backed into the car behind me,” the complainant wrote to the agency. “I am 99% certain that I did not have my foot on the brake pedal because I rarely use it nowadays,” they wrote, noting that they rely on the car’s autopilot mode to brake for them.

As for the system after 2021, it got even worse. It’s a problem we reported on three years ago when the new needlessly confusing touch-screen shifting first debuted. It seemed like a major change in how humans interact with their cars that absolutely no one was asking for. Take a look for yourself: