Mon. Nov 21st, 2022

In an upscale neighborhood of Seoul two years ago, a white Tesla Model X crashed into a parking lot wall. A prominent lawyer – a close friend of the South Korean president – died in a fiery accident.

Prosecutors charged the driver with manslaughter. He blames Tesla.

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Choi Woan-jong, who made a living driving drunk people home in his own cars, says the Model X went out of control on its own and its brakes failed in the December 2020 crash.

The soon-to-be-opened criminal trial in South Korea hinges on questions about the safety of Tesla cars, at a time when the electric vehicle maker faces a barrage of lawsuits and increased scrutiny from regulators.

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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 is suffering flashbacks and depression ahead of a trial that pits his credibility against the world’s most valuable carmaker.

“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 accident.

Tesla did not respond to written requests for comment on the accident 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.

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

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For example, Tesla is not required to follow South Korean regulations that require at least one of the front and rear seat doors to have mechanical anti-failure protection because the US-South Korea free trade agreement exempts automakers with sales below 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 at the South Korean trade ministry’s Korea-US FTA department, said the exemption clause requires Tesla to comply with US safety regulations, which do not require a mechanical back-up latch. Such latches make it possible to open the door even if the car does not have electricity.

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

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Prosecutors say Choi hit the gas while pulling into the garage of an apartment building in Seoul, going 95 km/h (60 mph) before crashing. He denies this, saying the car’s side mirrors began to fold uncontrollably before the car accelerated on its own.

“I felt like the car was blown away by a hurricane,” said Choi, who said he has been driving for more than 20 years and has experience driving a Tesla.

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The automaker provided prosecutors with data from the Model X that the car emitted in the moments before the crash, a judge said at a preliminary hearing. The defenders have requested access to the data and are waiting for the court to publish it.

Choi and his lawyer are seeking to prove that the car’s electrical system failed and that its design slowed firefighters’ efforts to save Yoon.

Tesla’s battery caught fire after the accident. Smoke and flames filled the car, according to firefighters and footage of the scene taken by firefighters and viewed by Reuters.

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

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Yoon, 60, was pronounced dead after firefighters pulled him from the car and performed CPR. The cause of death has not been released.

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

An investigation by the responding fire station revealed that a battery failure slowed the emergency response by disabling the seat controls, preventing firefighters from moving the front seats to reach Yoon, according to a fire department report.

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

A representative of the fire station declined to comment.

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

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Video of the rescue shows firefighters trying but failing to pry open the Model X’s wing-style doors. They eventually broke through the front windshield and pulled Yoon out of the car about 25 minutes after 911 arrived, according to the video and fire department report.

Tesla is the only automaker that does not provide data from on-board diagnostic systems for safety checks in South Korea to the Korean Traffic Safety Administration (TSA), according to the agency and Park Sang-hyuk, a lawmaker from the opposition Democratic Party of Korea who, spurred by Choi’s accident, led the campaign for regulators to pressure Tesla to change door handles and cooperate with regulators.

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TS noted that Tesla is not legally required to provide such information, but that all other foreign and domestic car manufacturers do so.

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

“Tesla has become a kind of icon for great innovation, but I think (the company’s problems in Korea) are also causing serious concern for customers,” Park said, referring to cases of Tesla’s doors not opening after crashes and provisions of the free trade agreement. .

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A South Korean consumer group, Citizens United for Consumer Sovereignty, said in September that Tesla had failed to fix what the group called “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 it had asked police to investigate Tesla for failing to improve driver and passenger safety after a fatal crash in Seoul, but that police told them in May there was insufficient 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 while Tesla’s door latches might violate local safety standards, that consideration was outweighed by the terms of the Korea-US free trade agreement.

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The Tesla door “may violate (local) regulations, but it (Tesla) is under no obligation to comply with local motor vehicle safety standards under the Korea-US Free Trade Agreement,” the police letter said.

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In South Korean courts, drivers in cases where the cause of an accident 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 for safety problems.

“Unless you’ve been through this, you’ll never know what it feels like,” said Ahn Ho-joon, another “substitute driver” in South Korea, who in May was involved in a Tesla crash 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 pretrial hearings, says the Tesla he was driving also accelerated on its own and crashed into two vehicles in the underground garage, but there were no serious injuries. The police say that he is to blame for the accident because there was no problem with the vehicle, but they did not charge him because the accident was minor.

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

Choi, unable to work and almost penniless, has moved into a 6.6-square-meter (71-square-foot) apartment 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 has a long-term view of Tesla.

“Obviously there is a process by which products are made perfect through trial and error. And I was just meant to be a part of that process,” he said.

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