Tesla safety at Korea’s test center for deadly, fiery crash

© Reuters. The Tesla logo is seen on the steering wheel of the Model S electric vehicle at its dealership in Seoul, South Korea on July 6, 2017. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji/File Photo

By Ju-min Park

SEOUL (Reuters) – In an upscale neighborhood in Seoul two years ago, a white Tesla Model X (NASDAQ:) crashed into a wall of a parking lot. The fiery accident killed a famous lawyer – a close friend of the South Korean president.

Prosecutors charged the driver with involuntary manslaughter. He blamed Tesla.

Choi Woan-jong, who made a living driving drunk people home in their own cars, said the Model X accelerated out of control and the brakes failed in the December crash. 2020.

A criminal trial is about to begin in South Korea surrounding questions about the safety of Tesla vehicles, at a time when the EV maker faces a series of lawsuits and increasing scrutiny by regulators. physical.

Choi, 61, is currently unable to find work as an independent driver, aka “alternative driver” in South Korea.

He said he suffered from flashbacks and depression ahead of a trial that pitted his credibility against the world’s most valuable automaker.

“When I woke up, I felt abandoned, alone in the middle of the ocean,” said Choi, who underwent surgery after the collision due to a ruptured bowel.

Tesla did not respond to written requests for comment on the accident and Choi’s case. Family lawyer Yoon Hong-geun, who owned the car and died in the accident, declined to comment.

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

For instance, Tesla is not required to follow Korean regulations that require at least one door in the front and rear seats to have a mechanical back-up safety device because of the US free trade agreement- South Korea waives safety rules for automakers with sales of less than 50,000 vehicles. .

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 the Korean Ministry of Commerce, said the waiver requires Tesla to comply with US safety regulations, which do not require a mechanical backup latch. gas. Such latches allow the door to be opened even when the vehicle is without power.

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

Prosecutors say Choi stepped on the gas as he entered the garage of an apartment building in Seoul, at 95 kph (60mph) before crashing. He denied it, saying that the car’s rearview mirror began to fold in and out uncontrollably just before the car accelerated on its own.

“It felt like the car was swept away by a storm,” said Choi, who has driven for more than 20 years and has experience driving Teslas.

The automaker provided prosecutors with data from the Model X that the vehicle transmitted in the moment before the collision, the judge said at the preliminary hearing. The defense team has requested to see the data and is waiting for the court to release it.

Choi and his lawyer are trying to prove that the car’s electrical system and its design slowed down firefighters’ efforts to rescue Yoon.

Tesla’s battery caught fire after the crash. According to firefighters, smoke and flames filled the vehicle and a video of the scene was filmed by firefighters and seen by Reuters.

Choi escaped through a broken window at his side. Firefighters were delayed in pulling Yoon out of the back seat because the Model X’s electronic doors failed to open from the outside, a December 31, 2020 fire department report reviewed by Reuters showed. The report did not say how long the rescue was delayed.

Yoon, 60, was pronounced dead after firefighters removed him from the vehicle and performed CPR. The cause of death has not been made public.

Judge Park Won-gyu said that he plans to call Tesla engineers to testify and that the safety of Tesla vehicles will be examined at the trial. Involuntary manslaughter is punishable by up to 5 years in prison.


According to the fire department’s report, the fire station’s investigation found that a battery failure had slowed emergency response by disabling seat controls, making it impossible for firefighters to reposition the front seat so they could approached Yoon.

The report said the power outage made it “impossible to secure space for (rescue) operations”.

A representative for the fire station declined to comment.

The report said the exterior door handles on the Model X, which are electronic, failed to open from the outside when the battery burned out. It also said firefighters were unable to pull Yoon out of the vehicle because they couldn’t move the front seat after the battery ran out.

A video of the rescue shows firefighters trying but failing to open the Model X’s wing-style doors. They eventually broke the front windshield and pulled Yoon out of the vehicle about 25 minutes later. when there was an emergency call, according to firefighter footage and reports.

Tesla is the only automaker that does not provide data to the Korea Traffic Safety Administration (TS) from in-vehicle diagnostic systems for safety checks in South Korea, according to the agency and Park Sang. -hyuk, a lawmaker from the opposition Democratic Party of Korea, who said. , prompted by Choi’s accident, lobbied regulators to pressure Tesla to change door handles and work with regulators.

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

Park and TS said Tesla is working with the agency to allow Korean owners to access their auto diagnostic data starting October 2023.

“Tesla has become a great symbol of innovation, but I think (the company’s problems in Korea) also cause serious concern for customers here,” said Park, referring to the schools. Tesla car door not opening after a collision and terms of free trade agreement.

A South Korean consumer group, Citizens United for Consumer Soreignty, said in September that Tesla had not fixed what the group called a “door bug”. The group says it has collected information on about 1,870 complaints related to Tesla doors over the past four years. Data provided to Reuters by another South Korean lawmaker and TS confirm that figure.

The consumer group said it asked police to investigate Tesla for failing to improve driver and passenger safety following the deadly crash in Seoul, but police told them in May that no there was enough evidence to proceed, according to their report seen by Reuters.

In a June 29 letter to a consumer group seen by Reuters, police said that while Tesla’s door latches may violate local safety standards, that consideration has been denied by law enforcement agencies. the terms of the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement override.

The police letter said “Tesla doors may violate (local) regulations, but it (Tesla) is not obligated to comply with local motor vehicle safety standards under the trade agreement.” Korea – USA freedom”.

In South Korean courts, drivers in collision-cause disputes face an obligation to prove the vehicle was at fault, three auto safety and legal experts said, and the Vehicle manufacturers are almost never prosecuted for safety issues.

“Unless you’ve been through this, you’ll never know what it feels like,” said Ahn Ho-joon, another “alternative driver” in South Korea who was in a Tesla accident in May. closely resembles Choi, said police records.

Tesla did not respond to a request for comment.

Ahn, one of the few people who attended all of Choi’s pre-trial hearings, said the Tesla he was driving also accelerated and crashed into two vehicles in the underground garage, but there were no serious injuries. . Police said the crash was his fault as there were no problems with the vehicle, but did not charge him for the insignificant wreck.

Ahn said he is continuing his work as an independent surrogate driver, but refuses to drive Teslas.

Choi, unable to work and running out of money, has moved into a 6.6 square meter (71 square foot) room that he rents for 350,000 won ($243) a month. Funded by the state housing subsidy, it includes a shared bathroom and kitchen, and all the rice he can eat. Despite these difficulties, Choi has a foresight about Tesla.

“Obviously there’s a process to making a product perfect through trial and error. And I was destined to be a part of that process,” he said.

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