Tesla safety at centre of South Korean trial over fiery, fatal crash

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Two years ago in an upscale neighborhood of Seoul, a white Tesla Model X crashed into a parking lot wall. A prominent lawyer was killed in a fiery crash – a close friend of the South Korean president.

Prosecutors have charged the driver with culpable homicide not amounting to murder. He blames Tesla.

Choi Won-jong, who made a living by driving drunk people home in their cars, says the Model X spun out of control on its own and the brakes failed in a December 2020 crash.

The criminal trial set to begin in South Korea hangs over questions about the safety of Tesla cars, at a time when the EV maker is facing multiple lawsuits and investigations by regulators.

Choi, 61, is now unable to find work as a freelance driver, or what is known in Korea as a “substitute driver”.

He says he suffers from flashbacks and depression ahead of the trial against the world’s most valuable automaker, affecting his credibility.

Choi said, “When I wake up, I feel abandoned, floating alone in the middle of the ocean.”

Tesla did not respond to written requests for comment about the accident and Choi’s case. A lawyer for the car’s owner and the family of Yoon Hong-geun, who died in the accident, declined to comment.

Choi’s case has attracted the attention of some security advocates in South Korea who want to replace a provision in a free trade agreement with the United States that exempts Tesla from local standards.

For example, Tesla is not required to comply with South Korean regulations that require at least one front-seat and back-seat door to open to mechanical failure because the US–South Korea Free Trade Agreement allows car manufacturers. exempts the sale of fewer than 50,000 vehicles from local safety regulations. ,

Registration data shows that Tesla sold 17,828 vehicles in South Korea in 2021.

Park Keun-oh, an official with the Korea-US FTA division of South Korea’s trade ministry, said the exemption clause requires Tesla to comply with US safety regulations, which do not require mechanical backup latches. Such a latch allows the doors to be opened even when there is no electricity in the car.

Park declined to comment further. The Office of the United States Trade Representative did not respond to requests for comment about the trade deal or the regulations.

Prosecutors say Choi hit the accelerator as he entered the garage of a Seoul apartment building, traveling at 95 kilometers per hour (60 mph) before the crash. He denied that, adding that the side mirrors of the car started turning inwards and outwards just before the car started accelerating on its own.

“It felt like the car was swept away by a storm,” Choi said, adding that he had been driving for more than 20 years and had experience driving a Tesla.

The automaker provided prosecutors with data from the Model X that the car broadcast in the moments before the crash, the judge said in a preliminary hearing. The defense team has asked to see the data and is waiting for the court to release it.

Choi and his attorney are trying to show that the car’s electrical systems failed and that its design slowed firefighters’ efforts to save Yoon.

Tesla’s battery caught fire after the collision. Smoke and flames filled the car, according to firefighters, and a video of the scene, taken by firefighters and seen by Reuters.

Choi escaped through the broken window on his side. Firefighters were delayed in getting Yoon out of the back seat because the Model X’s electronic doors did not open from the outside, a fire department report reviewed by Reuters shows on December 31, 2020. The report did not specify how long the rescue operation took.

Yoon, 60, was pronounced dead after firefighters pulled him from the car and performed CPR. The cause of death was not made public.

Judge Park Won-gyu said he plans to call Tesla engineers to testify and that the safety of Tesla vehicles will be examined during the trial. Involuntary manslaughter carries a possible prison sentence of up to five years.

a fiery scene

According to the fire department report, an investigation by the fire station found that the battery failure slowed the emergency response by disabling the seat controls, which prevented firefighters from changing the front seats so they could reach them. Can

The report said the power outage “made it impossible to secure a place for the (rescue) operation.”

A representative for the fire station declined to comment.

The report states that the Model X’s exterior door handles, which are electronic, did not open from the outside due to a burnt battery. It also said that firefighters could not pull Yoon out of the car because they could not move the front seats after the battery had died.

A video of the rescue shows firefighters trying to open the Model X’s wing-style doors but failing. According to footage and reports from firefighters, they eventually broke through the front windshield and pulled Yoon from the car about 25 minutes after the emergency call came in.

According to the agency and opposition Democratic Party of Korea lawmaker Park Sang-hyuk, Tesla is the only automaker that does not provide data from onboard diagnostic systems to the Korea Transportation Safety Authority (TSA) for safety checks in South Korea. Inspired by Choi’s accident, regulators launched a campaign to pressure Tesla to replace its door handles and work with regulators.

TS said Tesla is not legally required to provide such data, but all other foreign and domestic carmakers are doing so.

Park and TS said Tesla is working with the agency to allow Korean owners to access their car’s diagnostic data from October 2023.

“Tesla has become an icon for great innovation, but I think (the company’s issues in Korea) also pose a serious concern for customers,” Park said. Provisions of Free Trade Agreement

Citizens United for Consumer Sovereignty, a South Korean consumer group, said in September that Tesla has not fixed what the group calls a “door flaw.” The group says it has collected information on about 1,870 complaints involving Tesla doors over the past four years. Data provided to Reuters by another South Korean lawmaker and TS confirmed that number.

The consumer group said it asked police to investigate Tesla for not improving driver and passenger safety after a fatal crash in Seoul, but police told them in May that further There was not enough evidence to escalate.

In a June 29 letter to a consumer group seen by Reuters, police say that although Tesla’s door latches may violate local safety standards, the idea was influenced by the terms of the Korea-US free trade agreement.

The police letter states that Tesla’s doors “may violate” (local) regulations, but it (Tesla) is under no obligation to comply with local motor vehicle safety standards in accordance with the Korea-US Free Trade Agreement.

Three legal and auto safety experts say that in South Korean courts, in cases where the cause of an accident is disputed, the burden of proof is on drivers, and automakers are almost never prosecuted over safety issues. goes.

“Until you go through it, you’ll never know what it feels like,” said Ahn Ho-joon, another “replacement driver” in South Korea who had a Tesla crash similar to Choi’s in May, according to police records. Let’s show

Tesla did not respond to requests for comment.

Ahn, who was one of the few people to attend Choi’s pre-trial hearing, says the Tesla he was driving also accelerated on its own and collided with two vehicles in an underground garage, but no one was seriously injured. Didn’t get hurt. Police say the accident was his fault as there was no problem with the vehicle, but do not charge him as the accident was minor.

Ahn said he has continued his work as an independent replacement driver but has declined to drive Tesla.

Choi, unable to work and almost out of money, has moved into a 6.6-square-metre (71-square-foot) cubicle, which he rents for 350,000 won ($243) a month. Funded by state housing subsidies, it includes a shared bathroom and kitchen, and all the rice he can eat. Despite these difficulties, Choi takes the long view on Tesla.

“Obviously there’s a process of getting products right through trial and error. And I want to be part of that process,” he said.

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