Tesla safety at the center of South Korean trial over fiery, deadly crash

SEOUL, Nov 21 (Reuters) – In an upscale Seoul neighborhood, a white Tesla Model X crashed into a parking lot wall two years ago. The fiery crash killed a prominent lawyer – a close friend of South Korea’s president.

The public prosecutor charged the driver with involuntary manslaughter. He blames Tesla.

Choi Woan-young, who had made a living driving drunk people home in their own car, says the Model X spiraled out of control on its own and the brakes failed in the December 2020 accident.

The criminal trial that is about to begin in South Korea hinges on questions about the safety of Tesla cars, at a time when the EV maker faces a series of lawsuits and increased scrutiny from regulators.

Choi, 61, is now unable to find work as a self-employed driver, or what is known as “replacement driver” in Korea.

He says he suffers from flashbacks and depression ahead of a trial that risks his credibility with the world’s most valuable automaker.

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

Tesla did not respond to written requests for comment about the crash and Choi’s case. A lawyer for the family of Yoon Hong-geun, the owner of the car and killed in the crash, declined to comment.

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

For example, Tesla is not required to follow South Korean regulations that require at least one front and rear seat to have mechanical failure protection because the U.S.-South Korea free trade agreement exempts automakers with sales of less than 50,000 vehicles from local safety rules. .

Tesla sold 17,828 vehicles in South Korea in 2021, according to registration data.

Park Keun-oh, an official in the South Korean Commerce Ministry’s Korea-US FTA division, said the exemption clause requires Tesla to comply with US safety regulations, which do not require a mechanical back-up lock. Such locks allow doors to be opened even if the car has no electrical power.

Park declined to comment further. The Office of the United States Trade Representative did not respond to requests for comment on the trade agreement or regulations.

Prosecutors say Choi hit the accelerator as he entered the garage of a Seoul apartment building and hit 95 km/h (60 mph) before crashing. He denies that and says the car’s side mirrors folded in and out without command just before the car accelerated on its own.

“It felt like the car was being swept away by a hurricane,” said Choi, who said he has been driving for more than 20 years and has experience driving Teslas.

The automaker provided prosecutors with data from the Model X the car broadcast in the moments leading up to the crash, the judge said at a preliminary hearing. The defense team has asked to see the records and is awaiting court release.

Choi and his lawyer try to show that the car’s electrical systems failed and that the design delayed firefighters’ efforts to save Yoon.

The Tesla’s battery caught fire after the crash. Smoke and flames filled the car, according to firefighters and a video of the scene captured by firefighters and viewed by Reuters.

Choi escaped through a broken window on his side. Firefighters were delayed in getting Yoon out of the back seat because the Model X’s electronic doors could not be opened from the outside, according to a Dec. 31, 2020 fire report reviewed by Reuters. The report does not say how long the rescue has been delayed.

Yoon, 60, was pronounced dead after firefighters freed him from the car and performed CPR. The cause of death was not made public.

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


The investigation by the fire station that responded found that the battery failure delayed emergency response by disabling the seat controls, preventing firefighters from moving the front seats so they could reach Yoon, according to the fire department report.

The power failure made it “impossible to free up space for the (rescue) operation,” the report said.

A fire department representative declined to comment.

The report says that the exterior handles of the Model X, which are electronic, did not open from the outside when the battery burned. It also says that firefighters couldn’t get Yoon out of the car because they couldn’t move the front seats after the battery died.

Video from the rescue shows firefighters attempting to open the Model X’s gull-wing doors but failing to open the doors. They eventually broke through the windshield and pulled Yoon out of the car about 25 minutes after the emergency call came in, according to the footage and firefighters’ report.

Tesla is the only automaker not to provide data to the Korea Transportation Safety Authority (TS) on-board diagnostics for safety checks in South Korea, according to the agency and Park Sang-hyuk, a legislator from the opposition Democratic Party of Korea who, urged by the Choi crash, has been campaigning for regulators to pressure Tesla to change door handles and work with regulators.

TS noted that Tesla is not required by law to provide such data, but all other foreign and domestic automakers do.

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

“Tesla has become something of an icon for great innovation, but I think (the company’s problems in Korea) are also a serious concern for customers here,” Park said, referring to cases where Tesla’s doors don’t open after a collision, and the provisions of the free trade agreement.

A South Korean consumer group, Citizens United for Consumer Sovereignty, said in September that Tesla had failed to fix the “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 legislator, and TS, confirmed that number.

The consumer group said it had asked police to investigate Tesla for failing to improve driver and passenger safety after the deadly crash in Seoul, but police told them in May there was not enough evidence to continue. according to their report, seen by Reuters.

In a June 29 letter to the consumer group, seen by Reuters, police say that while Tesla’s door locks may violate local safety standards, that consideration was trumped by the terms of the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement.

Tesla doors “may violate (local) regulations, but it (Tesla) has no obligation to comply with local motor vehicle safety standards in accordance with the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement,” the police letter said.

In South Korean courts, in cases where the cause of an accident is contested, drivers must prove that the car had a defect, say three legal and auto safety experts, and automakers are almost never prosecuted for safety issues.

“Unless you’ve been through this, you’ll never know what it feels like,” said Ahn Ho-joon, another “replacement driver” in South Korea who had a Tesla accident nearly identical to Choi’s in May. according to police data.

Tesla did not respond to requests for comment.

Ahn, one of the few who attended all of Choi’s hearings, says the Tesla he was driving also accelerated on its own and crashed into two vehicles in an underground garage, but there were no serious injuries. Police say the accident was his fault because there were no issues with the vehicle, but did not prosecute him because the wreckage was small.

Ahn said he has kept his job as an independent replacement driver, but refuses to drive Teslas.

Unable to work and running out of money, Choi has moved into a 6.6 square meter cubicle that he rents for 350,000 won ($243) a month. Funded by state housing grants, it includes a shared bathroom and kitchen, and all the rice he can eat. Despite these hardships, Choi has a long view of Tesla.

“Of course there’s a process of making products perfect through trial and error. And I’m just destined to be a part of that process,” he said.

Reporting by Ju-min Park; Additional reporting by Hyunjoo Jin; Edited by Kevin Krolicki and Gerry Doyle

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Principles of Trust.

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