Tesla safety at an experiment center in South Korea regarding a fiery and fatal crash

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

Prosecutors charged the driver with manslaughter. Blame Tesla.

Choi Wan Jung, who made a living by driving drunk people home in their own cars, says the Model X spun out of control on its own and the brakes failed in the December 2020 accident.

A criminal trial about to begin in South Korea hinges on questions about the safety of Tesla cars, as the electric vehicle maker faces a slew of lawsuits and mounting scrutiny from regulators.

Choi, 61, is now unable to find work as a freelance driver, or what is known in Korea as a “substitute driver”.

He says he suffers from flashbacks and depression before an experience that pits his credibility against the world’s most valuable automaker.

“When I wake up, I feel so abandoned, floating alone in the middle of the ocean,” said Choi, who underwent surgery after shattering a torn intestine.

Tesla did not respond to written requests for comment about the accident and the Chue case. The lawyer for the family of Yoon Hong-gyun, who owned the car and died in the accident, declined to comment.

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

For example, Tesla is not required to follow South Korean regulations that require at least one front seat and a rear seat door for mechanical security because the US-South Korea Free Trade Agreement exempts automakers with sales of fewer than 50,000 vehicles from domestic safety rules.

Registration data showed that Tesla sold 17,828 vehicles in South Korea in 2021.

Park Keun Oh, an official from the Korea-US FTA division of the South Korean Ministry of Commerce, said the exemption clause requires Tesla to abide by US safety rules, which do not require a mechanical backup latch. These latches allow the doors to open even if the vehicle has no electrical power.

Park declined to comment further. The US Trade Representative’s office did not respond to requests for comment on the trade deal or regulations.

Prosecutors say Choi slammed the accelerator pedal to the floor when he entered the garage of an apartment building in Seoul, reaching 95 kilometers per hour (60 mph) before crashing. He denies this, saying that the car’s side mirrors began to fold in and out without orders before the car accelerated on its own.

“It felt like a tornado swept through the car,” said Choi, who said he had been driving for more than 20 years and had experience driving a Tesla.

At a preliminary hearing, the judge said the automaker provided prosecutors with data from the Model X that the car transmitted in the moments before the crash. The defense team requested to see the data and is waiting for the court to issue it.

Choi and his lawyer seek to prove that the car’s electrical systems failed and that its design slowed the firefighters’ attempts to rescue Yoon.

The Tesla battery caught fire after the collision. Smoke and flames filled the car, according to firefighters and in video taken by firefighters and seen by Reuters.

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

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

Judge Park Won-gyu said he plans to contact Tesla engineers to testify and that the safety of Tesla cars will be examined at the trial. Manslaughter is punishable by up to five years in prison.

An alarming sight

An investigation by the fire station that responded found that the battery failure slowed emergency response by disabling seat controls, preventing firefighters from repositioning the front seats so they could reach Yoon, according to the fire department’s report.

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

A representative for the fire station declined to comment.

The report says the exterior door handles on the Model X, which are electronic, did not open from the outside because the battery burned out. She also says that the firefighters were unable to pull Yoon out of the car because they were unable to move the front seats after the battery died.

Video of the rescue shows firefighters trying, but failing, to open the wing-style doors of the X. Eventually, they broke through the windshield and pulled Yoon out of the car about 25 minutes after the emergency call arrived, according to footage and a firefighter’s report.

Tesla is the only automaker not to provide data to the Korea Transportation Safety Authority (TS) from on-board 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. Spurred on by Choi’s collapse, regulators launched a campaign 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 all other foreign and domestic automakers do.

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

Referring to cases in which Tesla’s doors will not open after a collision, Park said, the provisions of the FTA.

A South Korean consumer group, Citizens United for Consumer Sovereignty, said in September that Tesla had not fixed 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, the TS, confirmed the figure.

The consumer group said it had asked police to investigate Tesla over its failure to improve driver and passenger safety after the fatal crash in Seoul, but police told them 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 said that although Tesla’s door latches may violate local safety standards, that consideration was overridden by the terms of the Korea-US Free Trade Agreement.

The police letter states that Tesla’s doors “may violate (local) regulations, but (Tesla) has no obligations to comply with domestic auto safety standards in accordance with the Korea-US Free Trade Agreement.”

In South Korean courts, drivers in cases where the cause of a crash is disputed face the burden of proving a defect in the vehicle, say three legal and auto-safety experts, and automakers are never sued over safety issues.

Unless you’ve been through this, you’ll never know how it feels, said Ahn Ho-joon, another “replacement driver” in South Korea, who had a Tesla accident in May that was almost identical to Choi’s.

Tesla did not respond to requests for comment.

Ahn, one of the few who attended all of Choi’s pre-trial hearings, says the Tesla he drove also accelerated on its own and crashed into two vehicles in the underground garage, but there were no serious injuries. Police say the accident was his fault because there were no problems with the car, but they don’t charge him because the wreckage was minor.

Ahn said he kept his job as an independent substitute driver, but refused to drive Teslas.

Choi, unable to work and close to money, has moved into a 6.6-square-meter (71 sq ft) room that he rents for 350,000 won ($243) a month. Funded by government housing subsidies, it includes a shared bathroom and kitchen and all the rice he can eat. Despite these difficulties, Choi is taking the long view of Tesla.

“Obviously there is a process of perfecting products through trial and error,” he said. “I am set to be a part of that process.”

Reporting by Jo Min Park. Additional reporting by Hyunjoo-jin. Editing by Kevin Krolicki and Jerry Doyle

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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