Model X owner trapped by falcon-wing doors in crash, but is Tesla to blame?
One of the Tesla Model X’s defining features is its so-called falcon-wing rear doors, which lift up and out dramatically to give access to the second row of seats. Eye-catching? Sure. Totally necessary? Perhaps not — even Elon Musk has seemed to second-guess the zany doors at times, suggesting that Tesla went a little heavy on the fancy features when developing the high-riding successor to the Model S.
Of course, calling the falcon-wing doors frivolous and accusing them of being outright hazardous are two different things entirely. Yet the latter is exactly what a Chinese Tesla Model X owner is doing following a crash and fire.
As EV specialist site electrek reported over the weekend, Model X owner Lee Tada is demanding the equivalent of $1 million after (she claims) inoperable rear doors left her and her boyfriend trapped inside a wrecked car. The accident, which happened in February in Guangzhou, China, followed a freeway spinout and collision with a Ford Focus. Tada’s chauffeur was driving, and the couple was in the back of the car.
After the incident, the pair apparently tried to open the rear doors to escape the car but was unable to do so; the doors cannot be opened in the normal manner when the vehicle loses power. Tada and her boyfriend climbed over the front seats and exited via the front doors, escaping serious physical (but not, per Tada, serious emotional) harm. Soon after, the Tesla caught fire and burned by the side of the road.
Asked about the incident, a Tesla spokesperson gave us this statement: “We are glad our customer and their passengers are safe. Working closely with authorities to facilitate their report, we have found that the debris field and damage observed indicate a very high-speed collision, which can result in fire damage to any kind of vehicle, not just electric vehicles. In fact, the other car in this incident (a gasoline-powered car) also caught on fire. Incidents of fires are far more likely to occur in traditional gasoline-powered vehicles than in electric vehicles.”
Tesla, then, seems to be pinning the cause of the crash and fire, at least partially, on driver error. But even if Tada and company were traveling faster than the 47 mph she claimed, that still doesn’t address the matter of the falcon doors.
Now, there is a way to open the rear doors even if your Model X loses total system power: Pull off the speaker cover on the rear doors and you’ll find an emergency manual release latch. Yank it and you’re free — but you have to know the lever is there, and the the Model X’s emergency release is hardly obvious.
The Tesla Model X’s rear doors can be opened after a loss of power, but the emergency release lever is hidden behind a stereo cover.
We’ll note that the Model X isn’t the only vehicle that can’t be opened conventionally after a loss of power. Like the Tesla, the C6 and C7 Corvettes, for example, come equipped with in-cockpit manual release levers to help you escape a car with a dead or disconnected battery. But again, these only work if you know where to look for them. Most owners don’t take the time to familiarize themselves with emergency features until an emergency occurs, and mid-vehicle fire is probably not the best time to bust out the previously neglected owner’s manual.
Perhaps more troubling is the fact that, in the case of the Model X, the rear doors can apparently only be opened from the inside in the event of a total vehicle power failure. And as the Model X emergency response guide (meant for firefighters and other accident scene first responders) details, the high-tension springs that help raise the doors present a safety hazard for anyone trying to cut or pry the doors away from a badly damaged vehicle. Even though these are extra-complicated, though, all doors, whether normal swing-open portals or sliders, can be so damaged in an accident that they’re impossible to operate normally.
However this pans out, it’s an interesting look at the advantages and disadvantages of novel takes on time-tested features. The Model X has conspicuously unconventional rear doors, but as we noted, even classic V8-powered sports cars like the Corvette require a non-intuitive extra step to open if things go wrong. Further, as Jeep recently discovered with the Grand Cherokee’s gear selector mechanism, vehicle systems that operate in an unconventional manner can lead to accidents — even deaths.
Relying on buyers to educate themselves is clearly a risky play, even when owner’s manuals spell everything out in black and white. So should automakers go out of their way to highlight non-intuitive feature operation or hidden safety features? Or are these supposed innovations gimmicks that aren’t worth the cost? It’s a tough call.