The dashboard lights and beeping alarms alerted that something was wrong. The driver’s side windows mysteriously and suddenly rolled down. Kendall Heiman’s Volkswagen SUV pulled the most terrifying stunt: It suddenly halted without warning.
Heiman, a Kansas clinical social worker, was driving her 15 year-old son to class when her 2021 Atlas Cross Sport malfunctioned. A two-mile round trip, normally routine, was transformed into an ordeal by the malfunctions.
Heiman stated that it literally feels like the car has been possessed. “I don’t feel like I’m driving my vehicle.” My car is driving my car.”
Heiman’s experience was not unique, as it turned out. 47 VW Atlas owners have reported the same issues in their 2020 and 2021 VW Atlas SUVs to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration since late 2020. Although some drivers claimed that they were able to avoid collisions, a review of all complaints revealed no crashes.
NHTSA stated that it had been collecting information from VW on the issue and was monitoring complaints and other data sources. NHTSA has not opened an investigation. It would need to gather and analyze additional information before it could request a recall.
According to NHTSA records, complaints about unanticipated braking in VW SUVs started in September 2020, eight months after Heiman purchased her SUV.
Volkswagen released a statement saying that it was investigating the issue but did not say it would recall the affected vehicles.
The company stated that VW was aware of the problems with certain Atlas and Atlas Cross Sport vehicles’ door wiring harnesses. “We are closely working with NHTSA regarding next steps towards identifying affected vehicles.”
Heiman drove her SUV on Jan. 5 after it suddenly stopped. She initially thought the problem was an accident. However, both the SUV and the VW app displayed malfunction alerts. Heiman said neither one of them gave any instructions to stop driving the vehicle.
The Cross Sport slowed unexpectedly several more times during that day. However, she was able override the problem with the accelerator. Heiman stated that the SUV suddenly slowed down and came to an abrupt halt on her way home with her son. A second SUV just missed her rear-ending. To override what she believes was an error in automatic emergency brake, she shut off the engine and started it again.
Jan. 5, was her first encounter with Cross Sport. She bought it new in May 2021.
Heiman called her dealer and made an appointment for the following day. She said that the SUV suddenly stopped abruptly as she exited a two-lane highway.
She said, “They didn’t tell me it was unsafe to drive to dealer.”
A mechanic discovered a problem in the wiring harness of the driver’s side door. She was told that there were no parts available. (Electrical shorts within wiring harnesses can lead to multiple vehicle problems, including brake activation.
Heiman explained that after discussing safety concerns with the dealership, they arranged for a car rental and then a brand new all-wheel-drive VW SUV.
Heiman also reported the issue to VW via an online chat. She was then referred to a regional manager, who was not able to help.
VW did not respond to Heiman’s claims.
Heiman filed a complaint to NHTSA on Jan. 12. She said that she had never heard back from them. (NHTSA claims it reviews all complaints, but doesn’t always respond to them directly.
Heiman stated that her burnt orange Cross Sport, with 12,600 miles and a $45,000 price tag, had sat in the dealership waiting for the part for more than two months. Heiman was contacted by a reporter to learn that the part had arrived and that her vehicle had been fixed.
Other complainants to NHTSA stated that dealers had told them that there were no loaner cars available and they should continue driving their vehicles.
“They could not also guarantee that my parking brake would not engage once the car was in drive. However, they refused to rent me a car because Volkswagen doesn’t consider it a safety issue.” One unidentified Sidney Center resident, New York filed a complaint.
Heiman’s Volkswagen experience made her worried about other people who may have had the same issues with the same VW models. She is curious why neither the automaker nor government safety regulators have recalled them.
It’s not known how many vehicles will need to be fixed if there is a recall. VW sold 203,000 combined of the two models in 2020 and 2021.
Owners complained that their Atlas and Atlas Cross Sport SUVs were stopped abruptly by the automatic emergency brake system. Safety advocates claim that the new technology uses computers and cameras to detect obstacles and slows down or stops drivers who don’t respond. It is promising to reduce crashes.
Automakers are also concerned about the technology. NHTSA opened an investigation into unexpected brakes in Tesla and Honda vehicles. Since 2019, it has been investigating small Nissan Rogue SUVs.
NHTSA documents regarding the Honda investigation revealed that six individuals complained of minor injuries in crashes.
The agency stated that an inadvertent or unanticipated braking activation while driving could cause speed drops that could lead to an increased risk of rear-end collisions.
Recalls are often the result of investigations. They can take several months, or even years to complete.
NHTSA is currently working to develop rules that will require an automatic emergency brake system on all new light and heavy vehicles. Automakers also agreed to make the system standard for most of their models by September this year.
Michael Brooks, chief attorney for the Center for Auto Safety, stated that “We all want technology.” It doesn’t have to work, or it causes safety problems like phantom brakes. This suggests that they should establish a minimum performance standard for all AEB systems.