An Arizona man says he was trapped in his Tesla in the extreme heat after the power died and he didn't know how to escape.
Investigators at Scripps News Phoenix found dozens of drivers have filed complaints with federal auto safety regulators who are urging car owners to learn how to manually get out in an emergency.
"It's definitely a safety concern; it was one of the hotter days," said 73-year-old Rick Meggison.
He said he was stuck in his Tesla Model Y in his garage back in June.
"I couldn't open the doors. I couldn't lower the windows. The computer was dead, so I couldn't open the glove box. I couldn't open anything." Meggison said his main lithium-ion battery, what's needed to propel his electric car, had plenty of range.
He later learned a separate 12-volt battery in his Tesla Model Y died after he opened the door, and he said he was trapped inside on a 100° day for 20 minutes. The low-voltage battery powers what's inside a Tesla including the doors, computer display, and windows.
"Being caught in there for a couple hours could be dangerous," he said.
Meggison said he eventually called his sister who somehow got the passenger door to open through the Tesla app, but it cracked his window. He said he had to call a tow truck to take his Tesla to the company's service center. His invoice reads, "Car won't power on… remove and replace 12v battery."
"I think that Tesla needs to address this," Meggison said.
"It's essentially a computer on wheels that's run on a battery," said car safety expert Norma Hubele.
Hubele is the founder of theautoprofessor.com, a data-based website that ranks how cars perform in crashes. She's also been an expert witness in over 120 consumer-related cases with the majority involving automotive safety.
"If that battery is not reliable or if for some reason the consumer isn't aware of how to override a problem with the battery, then you can have real safety problems," she said.
When the electric system fails, there is a way to get out of an electric car, which is clearly outlined in Tesla's manual, but experts believe many drivers, like Meggison, are unaware.
"I feel there's not enough knowledge about it," said firefighter and paramedic Paul Shoemaker.
Shoemaker runs a company in Colorado where he instructs emergency workers on how to save lives in car crashes. Last November, he explained how the emergency latch can be hard to find in many electric cars and every electric car is different.
Tesla's Model Y has a manual release latch in the front seat located underneath the door handle, but the passenger manual release is harder to find. A passenger must remove the mat from the rear door pocket and press a red tab to get out in an emergency. Tesla's manual also notes "Not all Model Y vehicles are equipped with a manual release for the rear doors."
"It's not labeled. You don't know it's there unless you know it's there," Meggison said.
Meggison said he did know there was another way to get out of his Tesla, until it was too late, and he was already stuck. He said employees at Tesla's service center showed him the manual release latch.
"The button that you use every single day to get in and out of our car no longer works. You have to transition to a lever," Shoemaker said.
Shoemaker believes most people don't read their manual and therefore many electric car owners don't know how to manually get out.
"There are incidents across the United States where people are getting trapped in their car," Shoemaker explained.
Dozens of Tesla drivers have filed similar complaints with the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, the federal agency responsible for safety, which can force recalls.
"That says to me that we need to look at this as a potential threat to human life," said Hubele.
In July, a Tesla driver filed a complaint with NHTSA which said, "The car was completely dead with my dogs inside. I live in Palm Springs. It was 90° and sunny outside."
Another driver on July 14 reported to NHTSA, "12v battery failed without warning. Car was parked. Was unresponsive."
Last October, a Model 3 owner wrote in another complaint, "This is clearly a design flaw that should be corrected."
"Volumes speak volumes," Hubele said.
NHTSA urges all vehicle owners to familiarize themselves with the vehicle's features, including the manual door release location, and immediately replace their battery if they receive a low battery warning.
Meggison said Tesla did send him an alert on his phone about his 12-volt battery, but he said it came too late after his car was already towed.
"It simply said replace your battery," he explained. "It needs to say that earlier. It died first. I hope by letting people know about this that, maybe, we make people a little safer."
Scripps News Phoenix sent multiple emails to Tesla asking the company to weigh in, but Tesla has not responded. Tesla's website says the Model Y has a five-star safety rating and describes how Teslas are engineered to be the safest in the world, touting its all-electric design.
Electric car drivers should check their manual or consult their dealer to find the location of their emergency manual release latch.
This story was originally published by Jennifer Kovaleski at Scripps News Phoenix.
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