‘Aladdin’ star’s problem with Tesla known as ‘whompy wheels’

The star of Disney’s live-action version of ‘Aladdin’ is suing Tesla, claiming a defect in the car’s suspension caused the front wheel of his Model 3 to pop off as he was changing lanes on Hollywood Boulevard, spinning the car out of control and into a tree.

Actor Mena Massoud had bought the car only the day before and Geico, his insurer, ultimately found that the issue was indeed with Tesla, not Mena according, to the complaint. So Massoud is suing Tesla alleging negligence and breach of warranty among other things.

In a statement to Business Insider, a Tesla spokesperson said that Massoud’s car’s “wheel was torn off because the driver crashed into a tree at high speed.”

For those who watch Tesla closely, though, Massoud’s sounds familiar. Suspension problems have plagued Tesla’s cars for years. On the internet an incident like Mena’s is known as the “whompy wheel,” and it has become something like Tesla-lore. The National Highway Safety Transportation Association (NHTSA) website is littered with anonymous complaints about broken suspensions, and there are websites dedicated to spotting whompy wheels in the wild.

For its part, Tesla has issued multiple technical service bulletins (TSBs) warning mechanics of suspension issues with its Model S and X cars. But Tesla has never issued a recall for this problem.

One of those TSBs — issued for 2016 Model S and X cars in February of 2017 — warned: “Some Model S and X vehicles may have been manufactured with front suspension fore links that may not meet Tesla strength specifications. In the event of a link failure, the driver can still maintain control but the tire may contact the wheel arch liner.”

Jason Levine of the Center for Auto Safety told Business Insider that there are two instances in which a company is supposed to issue a recall — when a car is in violation of federal motor safety standard and/or when there’s a significant defect.

“Tesla’s not doing that,” he said to Business Insider over the phone, “they’re putting out over-the-air software updates [for some problems] and not reporting them as defects. Maybe they believe the problems are not safety issues or maybe they’re worried about how it will impact share price. To be fair, they’re not the only ones doing this… there is a long sad tradition of car companies doing this.”

A Tesla spokesperson said that the company uses TSBs like any automaker — when cars need an upgrade, or when it needs to share repair instructions that are not included in Tesla’s repair manual.

“However they are not recalls,” the spokesperson said, “they do not indicate that a recall is needed, and they do not indicate that there is any safety concern.”

According to internal documents viewed by Business Insider, engineers at Tesla have been tracking suspension issues in the Model S since at least 2013, and later tracked similar problems in the Model X. They’ve been examining failures in the field and writing reports comparing new cases to previous cases.

One investigation in 2016 found that Model S and X suspension failures were still being caused by the same issues that Tesla observed in a 2013 study — when fore links were fracturing at the ball joint because of visible flaws and/or improper forging. As Daily Kanban pointed out in its examination of this problem back in 2016, a similar ball joint failure in the 2000 to 2003 Dodge Durango and Dakota models resulted in a recall.

Instead of doing a recall on potentially defective suspensions, Tesla has been releasing Technical Service Bulletins (TSBs) related to this issue for years. TSBs are notices to owners and mechanics, letting them know that a car may have a particular quality issue.

Even though Tesla’s Model 3 has only been on the road for less than a year the company has already issued a TSB related to its suspension. It says that on some Model 3 cars “the front stabilizer bar link ball joint studs might crack at the flange. As a result, the nut that attaches the stabilizer bar might lose torque. This might result in noise coming from the front of vehicle while driving on rough surfaces.”

Tesla has issued multiple TSBs for Model S vehicles made in 2012, 2013, and 2014 describing suspension issues similar to the issues cited in Tesla’s internal documents. In one TSB (issued for 2012 and 2013 Model S cars), Tesla says the car’s “…front lower control arm ball joints might develop greater free play than is expected” leading to “accelerated wear” and “premature replacement of components.”

In another TSB issued just this year for 2013 and 2014 Model S cars, Tesla warns that the vehicle’s “lower rear control arm might crack, causing excessive negative camber of the rear suspension.”

One source, a former Tesla employee who agreed to speak to Business Insider on the condition of anonymity, said that rather than issue a recall Tesla asked customers who experienced suspension failures to sign non-disclosure agreements in exchange for new cars back in 2016. This also jibes with Daily Kanban’s reporting from the same time period.

In June 2016 NHTSA forced Tesla to change the language in its purchase contracts so that it was clear customers could still report issues with the vehicle. A Tesla spokesperson told Business Insider that the company has never “used an NDA or confidentiality agreement preventing customers from speaking with safety regulators or other government agencies.”

According to the internal documents Business Insider reviewed, a Tesla investigation in 2016 recommended that to solve its suspension problems long term, Tesla needed to improve its tooling on the part — a process that can take months in the auto business.

A Tesla spokesperson told Business Insider that the Model S has received a number of updates since 2012 when the car was first produced. Some of those updates included suspension components, as well as a full refresh of the front fascia. Part designs and suppliers have changed as well.

What safety advocates like Levine are looking for, though, is more transparency — and that goes for all automakers. They want to see fewer safety critical issues treated as performance or quality repairs, and they want more defects reported to third parties like the NHTSA.

“From everything we’ve seen we can determine that Tesla’s been playing fast and loose with safety rules since the beginning. They seem to think that [the rules] don’t apply to them,” Levine said.

“There have been a series of efforts on Tesla’s part to try to minimize safety issues. We’ve been doing this since 1970’s and all manufacturers face safety issues. The ones who take them seriously are — over the long hall — seen as the ones consumers have brand loyalty for. The ones that hide these issues are the ones that develop a reputation as companies that value profits over people.”

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