Two years ago, in an upscale Seoul neighborhood, a white Tesla Model X slammed into the wall of a parking lot. The fire accident killed a prominent lawyer – a close friend of the South Korean president.
Prosecutors have charged the driver with manslaughter. He blames Tesla.
Choi Woan-jong, who made a living driving drunk people home in their own car, says the Model X spun out of control on its own and the brakes failed in the December 2020 accident.
The criminal trial about to start in South Korea hangs over questions about the safety of Tesla cars, at a time when the electric vehicle maker faces a series of lawsuits and increased scrutiny from regulators .
Choi, 61, is now unable to find work as a freelance driver, or what is known in Korea as a “replacement driver”.
He says he suffers from flashbacks and depression ahead of a trial that pits his credibility against the world’s most valuable automaker.
“When I wake up I feel abandoned, floating alone in the middle of the ocean,” said Choi, who underwent surgery after the accident for a ruptured intestine.
Tesla did not respond to written requests for comment on the crash and Choi’s case. A lawyer for the family of Yoon Hong-geun, who owned the car and died in the accident, declined to comment.
Choi’s case has caught the attention of some security advocates in South Korea who want to change a provision of the free trade agreement with the United States that exempts Tesla from local standards.
For example, Tesla isn’t required to follow South Korean regulations that require at least one front seat and rear seat door to have a mechanical security, because the U.S.- South Korea exempts automakers selling fewer than 50,000 vehicles from local safety rules. .
Tesla sold 17,828 vehicles in South Korea in 2021, according to registration data.
Park Keun-oh, an official from the Korea-US FTA division from the South Korean Ministry of Commerce, said the exemption clause requires Tesla to comply with U.S. safety regulations, which do not require a mechanical emergency latch. Such locks make it possible to open the doors even if the car has no power supply.
Park declined to comment further. The U.S. Trade Representative’s office did not respond to requests for comment on the trade deal or the regulations.
Prosecutors say Choi pressed the accelerator as he pulled into the garage of an apartment building in Seoul, reaching 95 km/h (60 mph) before crashing. He denies this, saying the car’s side mirrors began to fold and unfold without command just before the car accelerated on its own.
“It was like the car had been swept away by a hurricane,” said Choi, who said he had been driving for more than 20 years and had experience driving Teslas.
The automaker provided prosecutors with Model X data that the car transmitted in the moments before the crash, the judge told a preliminary hearing. The defense team has asked to see the data and is waiting for the court to release it.
Choi and his lawyer seek to prove that car electrical systems failed and that its design slowed down the firefighters’ attempts to save Yoon.
The Tesla’s battery caught fire after the accident. Smoke and flames filled the car, according to firefighters and video of the scene, taken by firefighters and viewed by Reuters.
Choi escaped through a broken window on his side. Firefighters were slow to get Yoon out of the back seat because Model X’s electronic doors did not open from the outside, a Dec. 31, 2020, Fire department report reviewed by Reuters shows. The report does not say how long the rescue was delayed.
Yoon, 60, was pronounced dead after firefighters pulled him out of the car and performed CPR. The cause of death has not been made public.
Judge Park Won-gyu said he planned to call Tesla engineers to testify and that the safety of Tesla vehicles would be considered at trial. Manslaughter is punishable by up to five years in prison.
A fiery scene
Investigation by the responding fire station revealed that the battery failure had slowed the emergency response of disabling the seat controls, which prevented firefighters from repositioning the front seats to get to Yoon, According to the fire department report.
The blackout made him”impossible to secure the space for the (rescue) operation,” the report said.
A representative for the fire station declined to comment.
The report states that the Model X’s exterior door handles, which are electronic, do not have open from the outside that the battery has burned out. It also states that firefighters were unable to pull Yoon from the car as they could not move the front seats after the battery is dead.
Video of the rescue shows firefighters trying but failing to open the Model X’s swinging doors. They eventually broke through the forehead windshield and pulled Yoon from the car about 25 minutes after the emergency call, according to images and the report of the fire department.
Tesla is the only automaker that does not provide data to Korea Transportation Safety Authority (TS) on-board diagnostic systems for security checks in South Korea, according to the agency and Park Sang-hyuk, a lawmaker from Korea’s opposition Democratic Party who, spurred on by Choi’s crash, campaigned for regulators to pressure Tesla to change its door handles and work with regulators. .
TS noted that Tesla is not legally required to provide such data, but that all other foreign and domestic automakers do.
Park and TS said Tesla was working with the agency to allow Korean owners to access their car’s diagnostic data from October 2023.
“Tesla has become something of an icon of great innovation, but I think (the company’s problems in Korea) also raise serious concerns for customers here,” Park said, referring to cases in which the doors of Tesla will not open after a collisionand the provisions of the free trade agreement.
A South Korean consumer group, Citizens United for Consumer Sovereignty, said in September that Tesla had failed to fix what the group calls “door defects.”.” The group says it has collected information on about 1,870 complaints about Tesla doors over the past four years. Data provided to Reuters by another South Korean lawmaker, and TS, confirmed this number.
The consumer group said it had requested police to investigate Tesla for failing to improve driver and passenger safety after the fatal Seoul crash, but were told by police in May there was not enough evidence to proceed, according to their report, seen by Reuters.
In a June 29 letter to the consumer group, seen by Reuters, police say that while Tesla’s door latches may violate local safety standards, that consideration has been overshadowed by the terms of the free trade agreement. -Korea-US exchange.
Tesla Doors “may be in violation of (local) regulations, but it (Tesla) has no obligation to comply with local motor vehicle safety standards under the Korea-US Free Trade Agreement “, reads the font letter.
In South Korean courts, drivers in cases where the cause of an accident is disputed bear the burden of proving that the car had a defect, Three legal and auto safety experts say, and automakers are almost never sued over safety issues.
“Unless you’ve been there, you’ll never know how you feel,” said Ahn Ho-joon, another “replacement driver” in South Korea, who had a Tesla accident in May almost identical to Choi’s, according to police records.
Tesla did not respond to requests for comment.
Ahn, one of the few to attend all of Choi’s preliminary hearings, said the Tesla he was driving also accelerated on its own and crashed into two vehicles in an underground garage, but that there were no serious injuries. Police say the crash was their fault as there were no issues with the vehicle, but did not charge him because the wreckage was minor.
Ahn said he kept his job as a freelance replacement driver, but refused to drive Teslas.
Choi, unable to work and almost penniless, moved into a 6.6 square meter (71 square foot) cabin 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 sees Tesla in the long term.
“Obviously there is a process to make products perfect through trial and error. And I’m just meant to be part of that process,” he said.
(Reporting by Ju-min Park; Additional reporting by Hyunjoo Jin; Editing by Kevin Krolicki and Gerry Doyle)