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We Need to Talk About Tesla's Doors and Their Hidden Manual Releases

We have been covering a wave of Tesla fires in May that still have no explanation. One of these episodes demonstrated that “the safest cars on Earth” actually have a big safety issue: their doors and hidden manual releases. Jamil Jutha managed to escape his Model Y on May 20 by kicking the driver’s door glass because the door would not open. Sadly, it was not the first such incident. Omar Awan died in 2019, trapped in his 2016 Tesla Model S.
2016 Tesla Model S burns with Omar Awan inside it: the external door handles did not pop out2012 Tesla Model S EGR (emergency response guide)2021 Tesla Model S EGR (emergency response guide)Tesla Model 3 EGR (emergency response guide)Tesla Model Y EGR (emergency response guide)Tesla Model X EGR (emergency response guide)Tesla Model X EGR states you cannot open the falcon-wing doors in an emergency from the outsideThis chart shows where the manual releases for the Tesla vehicles are2016 Tesla Model S burns with Omar Awan inside it: the external door handles did not pop outTesla Model 3 spontaneously catches fire in California CityTesla Model 3 spontaneously catches fire in California CityTesla Model 3 spontaneously catches fire in California CityTesla Model 3 spontaneously catches fire in California CityTesla Model Y catches fire in Vancouver
The physician crashed his EV on February 24, 2019, while driving on Flamingo Road in Davie, Florida. Witnesses tried to remove Awan from the EV but were not able to do so. On October 10, 2019, his family sued Tesla because the autopsy concluded that he did not die due to the crash, but rather asphyxiated by the “inhalation of products of combustion.” Thermal injuries contributed to his death.

Although the speed limit there is 45 mph (72 kph), the police report stated that Awan’s Model S left the road at “a minimum of 79.60 mph” (128,1 kph). In its response to the lawsuit, Tesla argued that the driver was under the influence of alcohol or drugs because the toxicology results were above the legal limits. We were unable to learn what was detected in his blood, or how much it was above the legal limits.

For Liliana Awan, determining who was responsible for the crash is not the question. She told NBC6 that her husband would be still alive if the Model S door handles simply opened the car. That did not happen in Jutha’s Model Y, because its doors work with electronic actuators. If an electrical failure occurs, they demand a mechanical manual release. Awan’s Model S did not have these actuators on the front doors. In other words, the driver’s door in his EV should have opened if the physician had pulled the handle.

Until 2021, the internal front door handles in the Model S and Model X seemed to have a mechanical connection to the door locks. Tesla states in its manuals ERGs (emergency response guides) that front occupants just have to pull the handle, and the door will open, whether the car has a power failure or not. If their internal door handles really have mechanical links to the door locks, the Model S and Model X were the only Tesla cars to present that.

Awan’s Model S was made in 2016. That means his car would open if anyone inside the vehicle pulled the handle – regardless of it having power or not. We have no idea if the physician tried to escape the EV. The lawsuit mentions that a “nearby police officer” and “other bystanders” attempted to remove him from the burning car in vain, but not that he tried to escape. His wife firmly believes he did - to NBC6, she said he was fighting to survive.

Theoretically, the Model S can be opened from the outside because the retractable external door handles should pop out in an emergency. In Aman’s case, the people who tried to rescue him said they didn’t, which prevented them from helping. At that point, the flames were already too strong.

We verified Tesla’s owner manuals and EGRs, and they tell an interesting story. The earliest ones for the Model S bring this regarding opening the vehicle from the outside in emergencies:

“OPENING DOORS

Model S has unique door handles. Under normal conditions, when you press a handle, it extends* to allow you to open the door.

If door handles do not function, open the door manually by reaching inside the window and using the interior handle.”


Tesla does not specify how anyone can reach “inside the window.” Those instructions have remained the same until the 2016 EGR, which phrases that in a different way:

“NOTE: If the door handles do not function, open a front door manually by reaching inside the open window and using the mechanical release handle. See Opening Doors from Inside without Power.”

That section of the EGR reads like this:

“Opening Doors from the Inside without Power

To open the Model S front doors from the inside without 12V power, pull the mechanical release handle towards you. To open the Model S rear doors from the inside without 12V power, fold back the edge of the carpet below the rear seats and pull the mechanical release cable toward the center of the vehicle."


Tesla wrote something else right below this paragraph that is crucial for Awan’s story:

“It is important to know that in any vehicle collision with damage to the driver or passenger front door, the mechanical door release may not operate as designed. It is also important to remember that every vehicle accident is different and may require extrication operations to gain access to the vehicle’s cabin.

NOTE: Compromised doors may not release mechanically.”


Presented in 2015, the Model X came with the same EGR instructions and warnings. The text above looks pretty much like the legal disclaimers Tesla includes in Autopilot and FSD.

We have no idea if this is the same EGR published in 2016 or if it was modified at any point. If this paragraph was included after 2019, it could be a strong indication that it has to do with Awan’s crash. Even if this is indeed the original text, people usually say that “if there’s a warning, there are precedents.” We just don’t know why Tesla thought it was important to admonish the manual release could fail in 2016.

Imagining this could help Tesla avoid liabilities in this case, the lawsuit does not disclose if the Model S’s door was affected. A copy of the lawsuit describes the crash like this:

“On February 24, 2019, during an afternoon drive by decedent Dr. Omar Awan, the Awan Tesla veered out of control on a parkway in South Florida, yawed sideways, went over the curt, and onto the median, and struck a palm tree.”

Awan’s family claims in the lawsuit that the Model S design is defective, that it presents an “unreasonably dangerous fire risk,” and that this combination of flaws makes it a “death trap.”

After a 2021 refresh, the front door release on the Model S and the Model X turned into a handle ahead of the window switches. That’s precisely the same system used on the Model 3 and Model Y since they were first released. In other words, the Model S and the Model X adopted the worse solution their cheaper siblings introduced.

The problem is that very few people know where these emergency releases are, which was Jutha’s case. To make matters worse, Tesla does not instruct customers about that and does not label these releases in its cars. All info is restricted to the manuals and EGRs, which are only digital. If the vehicle fails or crashes, it is very unlikely that they will be accessible.

Twitter user TR (@Tweet_Removed) made a relevant thread speaking about that in an attempt to bring awareness to these manual releases. He consulted Tesla’s ERGs and also the owner’s manual of all four models currently for sale. Surprisingly, they only speak about manual releases for the front doors of the Model 3 and Model Y. Their ERGs bring these exact words for the rear ones:

“NOTE: Only the front doors are equipped with a mechanical release handle.”

What about a mechanical release cable for these rear doors? The Model 3’s and Model Y’s EGRs do not mention them. That made TR consider they do not have one. For uninformed customers, they do not exist. TR stressed that the ERG and the owner’s manual do not mention these manual releases. We also checked them, and that is correct. Curiously, at least the Model Y does, but Tesla makes no reference to these cables anywhere.

We only know the electric crossover has these manual releases because of the guys from the TFL YouTube channel. They had an issue with their Model Y left rear door in October 2020. Even the Tesla technician who assisted them did not know about a manual release. Some viewers eventually told them about these cables, but that is not exactly good news.

To reach the manual releases for the rear doors, you have to remove a rubber mat at the bottom of their storage boxes. After that, you have to open a small plastic lid, which the TFL folks only managed to do with a flat-head screwdriver. Again, it is a procedure that demands tools and accurate information. Imagine if the car is on fire just after a crash…

We don’t know if the Model 3 has a similar solution or if these rear door cables are limited to the Model Y. If you own a Model 3 and can verify that, that would be really helpful for us and – if you do not mind our saying so – especially for you.

Things may seem better on the Model S and Model X, but that’s up to debate. The Model S has manual releases located at the base of the rear seat, behind the carpet. It has two cuts that give direct access to the cables that release each of the rear doors. If you are in an emergency and willing to escape, you have to fold back the edge of that cut in the carpet and pull the cable behind it towards the center of the cabin, as the first video below shows at around 1:00.

The Model X and its falcon-wing doors represent a much more demanding task. In an emergency – yes, an emergency! – passengers have to remove the speaker grill, find the mechanical release cable, and pull it down towards the front seats. Tesla writes in its EGR that “without 12V power, the falcon wing doors can only be opened from the inside of the vehicle.” That kills any chance of external help without extrication tools.

Reuters now disclosed that NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) asked Tesla for more information on Jutha’s Model Y fire. However, the agency now has quite a few questions it has to answer that go beyond whatever Tesla can disclose.

In the Model X’s case, why allow the sale of a car that cannot have its rear doors opened from the outside in emergencies? In vehicles that present the risk of thermal runaway, what did Tesla do to give occupants enough time to escape? Has Tesla respected the safety standards related to allowing people to evade or be quickly rescued from one of its vehicles in accidents? If it did, are these standards good enough to ensure that getting out of these cars or saving people from them is possible in a timely manner?

Jutha must disagree that this is the case. Aman’s family is suing Tesla because they believe escaping is just part of the problem. They are also concerned about these EVs burning soon after crashes. We have recently documented three episodes in which that happened. Tesla is far from being the only one who owes the public some answers. More than the company, worldwide authorities are the ones who should explain this mess. If Tesla is selling unsafe vehicles, someone allowed it to do so.

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