Sudden braking in 2 VW SUV models leads to official testing | business news
By TOM KRISHER, AP Auto Writer
DETROIT (AP) — First came the beeping alarms and dash lights warning that something had gone haywire. Then, suddenly and mysteriously, the driver’s side windows rolled down. Kendall Heiman’s Volkswagen SUV then performed the scariest stunt of all: it suddenly braked for no reason.
Heiman, a clinical social worker in Lawrence, Kansas, was driving her 15-year-old son to a class on Jan. 5 when her 2021 Atlas Cross Sport snapped. The malfunctions turned a normally routine two-mile round trip into a white-knuckled ordeal.
“It literally feels like the car is owned,” Heiman said. “I don’t feel like I’m driving my car. My car drives me.”
It turns out Heiman’s experience wasn’t unique. Since late 2020, 47 VW owners have complained to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration about the same malfunctions in their 2020 and 2021 VW Atlas and Atlas Cross Sport SUVs. Some drivers reported narrowly escaping collisions, although a review of complaints found no reports of accidents.
In a statement, NHTSA said it had collected information from VW about the issue and was monitoring complaints and other data sources. The Agency has not opened a formal investigation. And it would need to collect and analyze additional data before it could request a recall.
Complaints of unexpected braking on the VW SUVs began in September 2020, eight months before Heiman bought her SUV, NHTSA records show.
In a statement, Volkswagen said it was working on the issue but didn’t say it was recalling affected vehicles.
“VW is aware of concerns about faulty door harnesses in certain Atlas and Atlas Cross Sport vehicles,” the company said. “We are working closely with NHTSA to plan next steps to identify affected vehicles.”
After the unexpected braking of her SUV on January 5, Heiman initially drove on, believing the problem to be a “bizarre coincidence.” The SUV and a VW app displayed malfunction warnings, she said, but neither displayed a message to stop driving the vehicle.
Her Cross Sport braked unexpectedly a few more times that day, but she was able to override it with the accelerator. That same day, as she pulled into a roundabout on her way home with her son, the SUV braked abruptly and came to a complete stop, Heiman said, and another SUV narrowly missed her. She shut off and restarted the engine to bypass what she believed was an automatic emergency braking malfunction.
On January 5th, she first encountered the problem with the Cross Sport, which she bought new in May 2021.
Once home, Heiman called their dealer’s service department and got an appointment the next day. On the way there, the SUV was mysteriously braked again when exiting a two-lane highway.
“They didn’t tell me it wasn’t safe to go to the dealer,” she said.
At the shop, a mechanic discovered a problem with a wiring harness in the driver’s door, but was told there were no parts to fix it. (Electrical shorts in wiring harnesses can cause several problems in vehicles, including brake activation.)
After discussing the safety risks with her, the dealership arranged for a rental car, Heiman said, and eventually use of a new all-wheel-drive VW SUV.
That same day, Heiman reported the problem to VW in an online chat and was referred to a regional manager, who was of little help, she said.
VW declined to comment on Heiman’s claims.
On Jan. 12, Heiman complained to NHTSA but said she never heard a response from the agency. (The NHTSA says it reviews all complaints but doesn’t directly respond to them in most cases.)
For more than two months, Heiman said, her orange Cross Sport, which had 12,600 miles on it and cost $45,000, sat at the dealership waiting for the part. But late last week, after a reporter contacted the dealership, Heiman received a call telling her the part had arrived and her vehicle was repaired.
Others who filed complaints with NHTSA wrote that dealers told them they were out of rental cars and to continue driving their vehicles.
“They also couldn’t guarantee that my parking brake wouldn’t re-engage while driving, but wouldn’t offer me a rental car because Volkswagen doesn’t see it as a ‘safety issue,'” an unidentified owner from Sidney Center, New York, said in a Complaint.
Heiman’s experience with Volkswagen made her concerned for others who were having the same problems with the same VW models. She wonders why the automakers and government safety agencies haven’t recalled them.
If there is a recall, it is not clear how many vehicles would have to be repaired. In 2020 and 2021, VW has sold 203,000 of both models combined.
Many owners wrote in complaints that the automatic emergency braking system abruptly stopped their Atlas and Atlas Cross Sport SUVs for no reason. Safety advocates say the new technology, which uses cameras and computers to detect obstacles and stop or slow down if a driver doesn’t react, shows promise in preventing accidents.
But the technology also worries automakers. The NHTSA recently opened investigations into unexpected braking by the systems in some Honda and Tesla vehicles. It has been studying Nissan Rogue small SUVs since 2019.
In documents related to the Honda investigation, NHTSA said six people complained of accidents resulting in minor injuries.
“Inadvertent or unexpected brake activation while driving can result in unexpected speed reductions that can result in increased vulnerability to rear-end collisions,” the agency wrote.
Investigations often lead to recalls. But they can take months or even years to complete.
The NHTSA is working to develop regulations that will require an automatic emergency braking system for all new light vehicles and heavy trucks. Additionally, automakers have agreed to make the system standard on most of their models by September this year.
“We all want technology,” said Michael Brooks, chief counsel for the nonprofit Center for Auto Safety. “But if it doesn’t work and it actually causes other safety issues like phantom braking, then it suggests they need a certain standard of performance for all of these AEB systems.”
AP researcher Jennifer Farrar in New York contributed to this report.
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