By Ju-min Park
SEOUL (Reuters) – In an upscale Seoul neighbourhood two years ago, a white Tesla Model X smashed into a parking lot wall. The fiery crash killed a prominent lawyer – a close friend of South Korea’s president.
Prosecutors have charged the driver with involuntary manslaughter. He blames Tesla.
Choi Woan-jong, who had eked out a living by driving drunk people home in their own cars, says the Model X sped out of control on its own and that the brakes failed in the December 2020 accident.
The criminal trial about to begin in South Korea hangs on questions about the safety of Tesla cars, at a time when the EV maker faces a range of lawsuits and increased scrutiny by regulators.
Choi, 61, is now unable to find work as an independent driver, or what is known in Korea as a “replacement driver”.
He says he suffers flashbacks and depression ahead of a trial that pits his credibility against 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 after the crash for a ruptured intestine.
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, who owned the car and died in the crash, declined to comment.
Choi’s case has drawn 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 local standards.
For instance, Tesla is not required to follow South Korean regulations that require at least one front-seat and back-seat door to have a mechanical failsafe because the U.S.-South Korea free trade agreement exempts carmakers with sales under 50,000 vehicles from local safety rules.
Tesla sold 17,828 vehicles in South Korea in 2021, registration data shows.
Park Keun-oh, an official from the Korea-U.S. FTA division of South Korea’s trade ministry, said the exemption clause requires Tesla to abide by American safety regulations, which do not require mechanical backup latch. Such latches allow doors to be opened even if the car does not have electrical power.
Park declined to comment further. The Office of the United States Trade Representative did not respond to requests for comment about the trade deal or the regulations.
Prosecutors say Choi floored the accelerator as he entered the garage of a Seoul apartment building, hitting 95 kph (60mph) before crashing. He denies that, saying the car’s side mirrors began folding in and out uncommanded just before the car accelerated on its own.
“It felt like the car was swept away by a hurricane,” said Choi, who said he had been driving for more than 20 years and had experience driving Teslas.
The automaker provided prosecutors with data from the Model X that the car transmitted in the moments before the crash, the judge said at a preliminary hearing. The defence team has asked to see the data and is waiting for the court to release it.
Choi and his lawyer are seeking to show that the car’s electrical systems failed and that its design slowed firefighters’ attempts to rescue 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, taken by firefighters and viewed 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 failed to open from outside, a Dec. 31, 2020, fire department report reviewed by Reuters shows. The report does not say how long the rescue was delayed.
Yoon, 60, was pronounced dead after firefighters extricated him from the car and performed CPR. The cause of death was not made public.
Judge Park Won-gyu said that he plans to call Tesla engineers to testify and that the safety of Tesla vehicles would be examined at trial. Involuntary manslaughter carries a potential prison sentence of up to five years.
A FIERY SCENE
The investigation by the fire station that responded found the battery failure slowed the emergency response by disabling seat controls, which prevented firefighters from repositioning the front seats so they could get to Yoon, according to the fire department report.
The electrical outage made it “impossible to secure space for the (rescue) operation”, the report said.
A fire station representative declined to comment.
The report says exterior door handles on the Model X, which are electronic, did not open from the outside as the battery burned. It also says firefighters could not pull Yoon from the car because they couldn’t move the front seats after the battery died.
A video of the rescue shows firefighters trying but failing to open the Model X’s wing-style doors. They eventually broke through the front windshield and pulled Yoon from the car about 25 minutes after the emergency call came in, according to the footage and the firefighters’ report.
Tesla is the only automaker that does not provide data to the Korea Transportation Safety Authority (TS) from onboard diagnostic systems for safety checks in South Korea, according to the agency and Park Sang-hyuk, a lawmaker with the opposition Democratic Party of Korea who, spurred by Choi’s crash, has campaigned for regulators 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 that all other foreign and domestic carmakers are doing so.
Park and TS said Tesla is working with the agency to allow Korean owners to access 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 issues in Korea) also raise a serious concern for customers here,” Park said, referring to cases in which Tesla’s doors will not open after a collision, and the free trade agreement provisions.
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 involving Tesla doors over the past four years. Data provided to Reuters by another South Korean lawmaker, and TS, confirmed that number.
The consumer group said that it asked police to investigate Tesla over not improving driver and passenger safety after the fatal crash in Seoul, but that 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 say that although Tesla’s door latches might violate local safety standards, that consideration was trumped by the terms of the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement.
Tesla doors “could be in violation of the (local) regulations, but it (Tesla) has no obligations 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, drivers in cases where a crash’s cause is disputed face the burden of proving the car had a defect, three legal and auto safety experts say, and vehicle manufacturers are almost never prosecuted over safety issues.
“Unless you have gone through this, you will never know how it feels,’ said Ahn Ho-joon, another “replacement driver” in South Korea, who had a Tesla accident in May nearly identical to Choi’s, police records show.
Tesla did not respond to requests for comment.
Ahn, one of the few to attend all of Choi’s pre-trial hearings, says the Tesla he drove 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 charge him because the wreck was minor.
Ahn said he has kept his job as an independent replacement driver, but declines to drive Teslas.
Choi, unable to work and nearly out of money, has moved into a 6.6-square-metre (71-square-foot) cubicle he rents for 350,000 won ($243) a month. Financed by state housing subsidies, it includes a shared bathroom and kitchen, and all the rice he can eat. Despite these hardships, Choi takes the long view on Tesla.
“Obviously there’s a process to make products perfect through trial and error. And I am just destined to be part of that process,” he said.
(Reporting by Ju-min Park; Additional reporting by Hyunjoo Jin; Editing by Kevin Krolicki and Gerry Doyle)