A wrongful death suit alleges the driver of a Tesla Model S died because emergency responders were unable to open his Tesla’s flush door handles.
According to US industry journal Automotive News and news agency Bloomberg, Omar Awan, a 48-year-old anaesthesiologist, died of smoke inhalation when a fire broke out in his 2016 Tesla Model S, after he lost control of the vehicle and crashed into a tree. The crash occurred in February of this year in Davie, Florida.
The suit alleges Awan suffered no internal injuries from the crash itself, and that his death was a result of smoke from the flaming battery.
Dr. Awan was burned beyond recognition and, according to the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the fire continued to burn for hours – even reigniting several times after firefighters had extinguished it.
It’s not the first time a crashed Tesla has combusted in such a way and continued to burn, though CEO Elon Musk maintains the company’s battery-electric vehicles are safer than a vehicle carrying a tank of petrol.
According to Automotive News and Bloomberg, the wrongful death suit, filed in a Florida county court this month, alleges “fire engulfed the car and burned Dr. Awan beyond recognition – all because the Model S has inaccessible door handles, no other way to open the doors, and an unreasonably dangerous fire risk".
The Model S’s flush door handles automatically pop out when the car’s key fob is detected nearby. If there’s an issue with the key’s battery, Tesla advises you to position your key near the base of the passenger-side windshield wiper and then press the front door handle.
There isn’t, however, a cable release to open the doors from the outside like there is inside the cabin.
As a failsafe, Model S doors are supposed to unlock and the handles extend in the event of an airbag deployment. Automotive News and Bloomberg reported witnesses as saying this didn't happen, and Dr. Awan was allegedly incapacitated and couldn’t pull the interior door handle himself.
Tesla maintains a collection of resources for emergency services on its website.
In the event the handles don’t extend, Tesla instructs emergency services personnel to reach into the car and pull the interior door handle. Thus far, reports on the matter make no mention as to whether an attempt was made to break the window.
Shortly after the crash, the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) announced it was opening an investigation into the accident.
The South Florida Sun-Sentinel reported Dr. Awan's Tesla swerved across three lanes of traffic before hitting some trees. It’s not yet known why Dr. Awan’s car veered off the road, or why the door handles stayed retracted. Tesla has yet to comment on the investigation or the case.
It’s not the first time Tesla’s trick door handles have been criticised. Quartz reported earlier this year owners in colder climates were having trouble opening their Model 3s. The smaller Tesla uses a type of flush-fitting door handles without the electric extension, while the Model X shares its front door handles with the Model S.
Automotive News also cited a Wired story from last year, where a former executive said Tesla CEO Elon Musk insisted on flush door handles even though it “was unanimous among the executive staff that the complex door handle idea was crazy”.
The executive was also quoted as saying the door handles “required incredibly complicated engineering, and it solved a problem that no one else thought was actually a problem. But no matter how forcefully executives objected, Musk wouldn’t yield”.