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By Ben Foldy
Federal regulators are looking into whether consumer complaints of unintended acceleration in Tesla Inc. models warrant a formal defect investigation into about 500,000 vehicles sold by the electric-car maker.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is evaluating 127 complaints received by the agency, which resulted in a reported 110 crashes and 52 injuries, according to documents posted online Friday morning.
The agency said it received an emailed petition in December citing the complaints and requesting an investigation. It didn't identify who submitted it. By law, the agency is required to evaluate petitions alleging defects and decide whether to open an investigation.
The complaints about the issue include all three models Tesla sells and potentially could cover about 500,000 vehicles, regulators estimate, or nearly all of the cars the company has sold in the U.S. since launching its Model S large sedan in 2012.
Tesla didn't respond to a request for comment.
NHTSA will follow standard practice and carefully review the petition and relevant data, an agency spokesman said.
The company's shares, which have surged 22% since the start of the year, fell less than 1% in morning trading Friday.
Public complaints of unintended acceleration among Tesla customers include one from South Korean actor Ji Chang Son in 2016. He claimed his Model X accelerated without command through the garage wall into the living room of his Orange County, Calif., home. Tesla said data from the vehicle showed he had pressed the accelerator. He denied that claim.
Many of the complaints cited in the NHTSA petition mention similar circumstances. Owners describe their vehicles bolting forward, often while attempting to park, causing them to plow into walls, curbs or light posts. Many also said Tesla attributed their crashes to driver error, claiming on-board data showed drivers had accelerated.
Claims of unintended acceleration by customers involved in crashes have long plagued the auto industry. A 1989 NHTSA study found that the vast majority of acceleration incidents in which no vehicle malfunction is present was caused by drivers mistaking the gas pedal for the brake.
A decade ago, Toyota Motor Corp's strong reputation for safety was dented following high-profile accusations of unintended acceleration, which led to the auto maker recalling millions of vehicles.
A federal probe eventually absolved Toyota's throttle-control electronics in the vehicles, finding that driver error was to blame in most mishaps. Sticky accelerator pedals and floor mats were said to play a role in other incidents.
Since bringing out the Model S in 2012, Tesla has seen rapid growth as it has worked to transform into a mainstream auto maker from one that sells high-end luxury vehicles. Sales have surged since 2017, when Tesla began selling the Model 3 compact car, its first model offered around the industry's average selling price of about $35,000.
Chief Executive Elon Musk has emphasized Tesla's focus on safety and complained the company receives outsized attention for incidents that other auto makers also face, such as car fires and crashes.
NHTSA also is evaluating another petition, filed last September, asking it to investigate allegations that Tesla modified its battery management software, using remote software updates that reduced the vehicles' range. The agency hasn't yet issued a decision on that petition, which was filed by an attorney representing plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit.
Write to Ben Foldy at Ben.Foldy@wsj.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
January 17, 2020 14:06 ET (19:06 GMT)
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