Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to reflect the company a UT researcher previously studied.
LEANDER, Texas (KXAN) — It’s a trip Swarajyalaxmi Rao makes often: from her home in the Houston area to her son’s place in Leander.
One day in May, she was driving her sister’s week-old Tesla Model Y with her sister in the car. Everything went smoothly, she said, until she got to her son’s driveway.
“I was going very slow, and all of a sudden, this Tesla car, like accelerated by itself, and hit the car in the front — that’s my son’s car,” Swarajyalaxmi recalled.
“I was inside at the moment, and I hear a loud bang,” said her son, Jai Rao. “‘Woah, what happened?’ And then I hear a screech, and then I hear another loud bang.”
Swarajyalaxmi said after the Tesla hit her son’s car, it reversed by itself, sped backwards across the street and rammed into the neighbors’ garage before finally coming to a stop.
Video of the incident was posted on YouTube.
“I was so scared that night, because usually kids play on that area, and I’m so thankful to God, you know, nothing happened to anybody … Even we’re not injured. But that’s the scariest feeling,” Swarajyalaxmi said.
“The neighbors said they were in the garage maybe five minutes before the incident. So if anyone was there, then it would have been that much worse,” Jai said.
Security footage from neigbhors shows the chain of events.
“All this time I didn’t know what’s happening. I was braking,” Swarajyalaxmi said.
“I just couldn’t believe what happened, ‘Is this really what happened? Is that my mom and aunt?” Jai recalled.
Jai said the damage to his car cost about $3,730. The Tesla was totaled. He said the neighbor’s car damage was around $8,000, and the estimate for their garage repair was between $22,000 and $27,000.
In a computer conference over the weekend, Tesla spokesperson Ashok Elluswamy appeared to use the Raos’ case in a safety presentation.
He said the driver unintentionally pressed the accelerator to 100%, first in forward, then in reverse. He also said the driver was driving manually, and autopilot almost saved the forward crash.
Elluswamy did not explain how the company was able to determine those points.
“While it’s incredibly sad, I’m glad that no one was harmed in this accident,” he said.
Swarajyalaxmi swears it was a car malfunction.
“I don’t believe there is — there isn’t any problem. There is a problem,” she said. “And I want to find out that, and Tesla should find out. This is going to happen to … other people.”
She added she’s driven many cars for several years, including Teslas.
“I didn’t do anything. It was on manual, and I did not do any reverse,” she insisted.
KXAN took the case to Dragan Djurdjanovic, a mechanical engineering professor and expert at the University of Texas at Austin. He studied similar allegations against Toyota around 2008.
“I was shocked when you came to me with this news. I was like, ‘Not again!’ Honestly,” he said.
Djurdjanovic said there could have been electromagnetic interference between wires in the car.
“You press the pedal, and the electric command goes to the car. And there could be a breakage in that electric link,” he explained.
The answer to what happened, he said, is probably in Tesla’s data.
“Tesla vehicles are really computers on wheels, essentially. So they do collect a lot of information, a lot of data,” he explained. “The car obviously understood that the car command was given to it to go backwards. And not only not to brake but to accelerate. So, one needs to know both where the pedals were and what the command was and see if there’s discrepancy.”
KXAN has been asking Tesla for information repeatedly since May and has never gotten a response. The Rao family said Tesla denied their request for their car’s crash data.
“At minimum, I would hope they would want to look into it deeply enough that they understand why this happened and make sure their cars don’t do that again,” Jai said. “Please, Tesla, if you are listening, come out, investigate.”
The Raos want an investigation, so no one else has to live with the impact of something like this, again.
“It’s a very bad experience,” said Swarajyalaxmi. “I still remember that. And it’s — it’s very hard for me to get out of that. I don’t know how long it’s going to take.”
The family’s car insurance agency told the Raos they could not definitively determine if the accident was the car’s fault. The family also filed a report with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
The agency told KXAN back in June it doesn’t comment on open investigations. KXAN is still waiting for an update on the case’s status since then.
More than 750 Tesla owners have complained to U.S. safety regulators their vehicles can brake for no reason when the partial auto-pilot mode is in use. Back in May, the NHTSA asked the automaker for all consumer and field reports received about false braking, as well as reports of crashes, injuries, deaths and property damage. The NHTSA is also looking into whether Teslas, running on autopilot, are able to detect and stop for motorcycles.
Last month, two deadly crashes happened in California and Utah. The nonprofit Center for Auto Safety is concerned the feature doesn’t recognize not only motorcyclists, but emergency vehicles and pedestrians. Tesla has said autopilot and “full self-driving” cannot drive the vehicles alone, and drivers should be ready to intervene at all times.