Why are Tesla steering wheels falling off?

NHTSA is aware of two instances in which a steering wheel has come off a Tesla Y.
The issue involves the Tesla Model Y. Craventure Media / Unplash

On January 24, Prerak Patel’s new 2023 Tesla Model Y was delivered. Five days later, according to tweets from Patel’s account, the car’s steering wheel fell off while he was driving. Luckily, no one was hurt. But this wasn’t an isolated incident. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the exact same issue has happened to another Model Y. It was enough for the NHTSA to begin looking into the problem, which they estimate could affect over 120,000 cars.

“I wasn’t sure what to do,” he said in an interview with Scripps News. “I was really scared—kids were scared too.”

The exact cause of the issue, according to the NHTSA document, is a manufacturing defect. The retaining bolt, the part of the steering wheel designed to keep it in place and attached to the rest of the steering mechanism, was missing. The report says that both cars received repairs before being delivered that involved removing the steering wheel. 

According to the NHTSA, after being delivered, the steering wheels were held in place by pure friction until they eventually experienced “complete detachment.” In Prerak Patel’s case, that happened while he and his family were on the highway. Luckily, there was no car behind him, and Patel was able to stop safely. After making sure his family was safe, Patel started a thread on Twitter to ask Tesla CEO Elon Musk and the company’s customer support for help. 

The NHTSA investigation is just the latest in a long string of Tesla mishaps. As early as 2018 and 2019, Tesla owners posted videos of poor build quality on their newly delivered cars. Tesla has consistently ranked near the bottom of the Consumer Reports reliability survey, placing second to last in 2021 and 19th out of 24 brands in 2022. But in addition to the manufacturing defects and reliability issues, the so-called self-driving software has also faced regulatory scrutiny.

[Related: Massive new Tesla recall focuses on dangers of self-driving software]

In February, the NHTSA announced a recall of hundreds of thousands of Teslas because of issues in their autopilot system. Tesla’s Full Self-Driving Beta (FSD Beta) system has been linked to fatal accidents. That NHTSA report explains that the FSD Beta was driving unsafely around intersections and ignoring speed limits. The problems were reportedly set to be fixed by an over-the-air software update. 

Tesla isn’t the only automaker to cope with a serious problem like the steering wheel coming off. Not long after Toyota’s first electric SUV, the BZ4X, was released, the company quickly recalled the EVs they had begun delivering because of problems that could lead to the wheels—the ones the vehicle rolls on—completely falling off. After an investigation, Toyota discovered that part of the issue was that a wheel supplier had been manufacturing the wheels to a different specification. Just 260 vehicles were affected.