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Death by Tesla

·3 mins
An old car with a dashboard with terrible ergonomics.
Not a Tesla. You can tell because it has a turn signal lever. This is not a joke.

The more I read about Angela Chao’s death the more amazing the story becomes, and not in a good way.

The initial story: Angela Chao was attempting a three point turn when her Tesla X reversed down an embankment into a pond and completely submerged. The subsequent details:

  • The Tesla X doesn’t have a gear shift lever. To explicitly shift gears, you have to slide your finger on a strip on the touch screen. (As an aside, this apparently means you can’t put the car in neutral to tow it if the touchscreen isn’t working for some reason.)

  • Having to use the touchscreen to select gears is obviously a pain, so there’s a feature to automatically guess whether you want forward or reverse gear when you move out of park by pushing the accelerator pedal.

  • Criteria the car uses to decide whether it thinks you want to reverse — according to Elon — include whether it thinks there’s something in front of you, and where it thinks you are according to the GPS map. Angela Chao was at a remote Texas ranch; and she apparently needed to perform a three point turn, suggesting there were obstacles around.

But let’s ignore the safety issues with software guessing whether you want to reverse, and assume for the moment that it was entirely the driver’s fault that she accidentally reversed into a pond.

  • Tesla X doors have electronic controls, so if the door circuitry isn’t working — say, because the car is submerged in a pond — the regular door handles won’t work. Not even the ones on the inside of the car.

  • The front doors on a Tesla X do have a manual emergency release in front of the window switches, assuming the panicked occupant knows it’s there and remembers to use it.

But suppose you’re in a Tesla X that reversed into a pond. In a regular car, the weight of the engine will make the front sink first. In a Tesla X, there’s no engine at the front, so the car may sink backwards, leaving a bubble of air at the front. Water pressure will then prevent the doors from opening, even if you find the lever. Since Angela Chao apparently had time to make a panicked phone call, it seems likely she was trapped in an air bubble.

So, imagine you realize the front doors won’t open, and decide to try to exit through the rear gull-wing doors, well…

If you drive a Tesla, you might now be thinking about getting one of those window-breaking safety hammers. Well, those don’t work on laminated glass, and the Tesla X has a laminated windshield and laminated side glass. That might be part of why emergency responders were reportedly unable to get into Angela Chao’s car for over an hour.

The final twist (for now): the Tesla X went on sale in 2017 after NHTSA testing allegedly found it was the safest SUV ever. The NHTSA is part of the Department of Transport, which in 2017 was headed by Angela Chao’s sister Elaine — Mitch McConnell’s wife, given a crony appointment by Donald Trump. Elaine Chao was later found to have abused her power to support The Foremost Group — whose CEO was Angela Chao.