The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says the probe covers an estimated 120,000 vehicles starting in the 2023 model year.
The agency says in both cases, the Model Ys were delivered to customers with a missing bolt that holds the wheel to the steering column. A friction fit held the steering wheels on, but they separated when force was applied while driving the SUVs.
The agency says in documents posted on its website Wednesday that both incidents happened while the SUVs had low mileage on them.
In a complaint filed with NHTSA, an owner said he was driving with his family on Route 1 in Woodbridge, New Jersey, when the steering wheel suddenly fell off on Jan. 29, five days after the vehicle was purchased. The owner wrote that there were no cars behind him and he could pull towards the divider. There were no injuries.
“It was a horrible experience, I was driving back from the mall with the family and in the middle of the highway the steering wheel fell off,” said Prerak Patel. “I was in the left lane when this happened, I can’t move my car to the left or right. “But I was lucky that the road was straight and was able to stop my car at the dividing line.”
Messages were left seeking comment from Tesla, which has disbanded its media relations department.
First, a Tesla service center gave Patel a cost estimate of $103.96 to repair the problem. The service center apologized in what appear to be text messages posted on Twitter.
When Patel wrote that he had lost faith in Tesla and asked for a refund, the service center removed the charge and wrote that Tesla does not have a return policy, but he could contact the sales and delivery team.
Patel was later given the option to keep the car or have it replaced with a new one, he said, and Patel chose to do so.
Patel said he is a fan of Tesla CEO Elon Musk and has invested much of his savings in the stock, which fell 3% on Wednesday.
“My kids were a little scared to drive a borrowed Tesla, and as a parent, we’re able to restore their confidence,” Patel said. “My family is fine now and hope Tesla will investigate and improve its (quality control) so no other family experiences what we experienced.”
Detached steering wheels are rare in the automotive industry, but not without precedent. In February, Nissan recalled about 1,000 Ariya electric cars because the wheels could come off the steering column due to a loose bolt.
Still, the latest NHTSA investigation adds to a long list of problems Tesla has with the US highway safety agency. In the past three years, it has opened investigations into Tesla’s “Autopilot” driver assistance system crashing into parked emergency vehicles and suspension problems. At least 14 Teslas have crashed into emergency vehicles while using the Autopilot system.
On Wednesday, the same day the report aired on problematic Tesla steering wheels, US safety regulators said a Tesla that last month plowed into a fire truck in California, killing the driver and injuring a passenger as well as four firefighters, was operating on one of the company’s automated driving systems.
In February, NHTSA pressured Tesla to recall nearly 363,000 vehicles with “Full Self-Driving” software because the system may violate traffic laws. The system, which cannot drive itself, is being tested on public roads by as many as 400,000 Tesla owners. But NHTSA said in documents that it can take unsafe actions, such as driving straight through an intersection while in a yellow-light-only lane without proper caution or failing to respond to changes in posted speed limits.
The US Department of Justice has also asked Tesla for documents from Tesla on “Full Self-Driving” and Autopilot.
The agency is also investigating complaints that Teslas can suddenly brake for no reason.
NHTSA has sent investigators to 35 Tesla accidents where automated systems are suspected of being used. Nineteen people have died in these accidents, including two motorcyclists.
Since January 2022, Tesla has issued 20 recalls, including several that were required by the NHTSA. The recalls include one from last January for “Fully Self-Driving” vehicles programmed to run stop signs at low speeds.