Tesla design elegance and the death of Angela Chao

The design elegance of Tesla cars exceeds that of any other vehicle. Tesla’s iPhone-like design aesthetic starts with the sleek exterior design (putting aside the horrifying CyberTruck, of course) and continues with the touchscreen-based center display, which elegantly integrates every function from navigation to climate control.

That design aesthetic may have contributed to the death of Angela Chao. And it should raise questions about the balance between design and safety.

What happened to Angela Chao?

Angela Chao was a prominent American. At age 50, she was the CEO of a global shipping concern and was married to a billionaire venture capitalist. Her sister is Elaine Chao, the former US Secretary of Transportation, who was married to Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell.

At 11:30 pm on February 9, after a party with friends at her family’s ranch in Austin, Texas, she took a seat in her Tesla Model X SUV and attempted to make a three-point turn to get out of her driveway. But she made an error and backed over an embankment and into a pond.

Chao called her friends in distress, but was unable to escape the car. By the time emergency responders arrived, they were unable to get the car open and had difficulty towing the car out of the pond. The car submerged and Angela Chao died.

How did Tesla’s shifter design figure in Chao’s accident?

According to an account in the Wall Street Journal, Angela Chao had complained in the past about the difficulty of using the gear shift in the Tesla Model X.

Unlike every other car you’ve likely driven, the Model X has no gear shift control device. To shift it, you manipulate a display on the central touch screen that controls pretty-much every other function in the car.

Tesla Model X manual

According to the manual, when the touchscreen is inoperable, you can control the shift with buttons on the center console. The buttons don’t illuminate until you touch them. Without power, they likely don’t illuminate at all.

Tesla Model X manual

While shifting gears is not a common operation like operating a turn signal or pressing the brake, it should be easy to shift between forward and reverse. In my two Tesla vehicles (a Model 3 and a Model Y), there is an intuitive stalk on the steering wheel: push forward to drive and pull back to reverse. My previous electric car, a Nissan Leaf, had a unique but easy to operate shifter on the center console, and my gas and hybrid cars had the center-mounted gear-shift lever that is common in automatic-shift cars. What all these controls have in common is that they’re easy to find and that shifting into forward and reverse are intuitive inverse operations.

Removing these functions from a separate lever reduces the number of separate controllers in the car. And admittedly, a driver doesn’t use these controls often. But confusing forward and reverse can have catastrophic consequences, including inadvertently backing into other cars when stopped or parking or, as happened to Chao, driving off the road surface and causing an accident.

Exiting a submerged car isn’t easy, especially in a Tesla

The Tesla Model X doors open automatically when you approach the car from outside with a key fob or a phone with the Tesla app paired to your car. Most Tesla drivers get used to just carrying their phones around with the Tesla app running. It’s very convenient to just have the doors open when you walk up. But it’s a problem if you’re underwater and the car has no electrical power.

Both the interior and exterior car door releases in a Tesla are electric. In theory, you could use the Tesla app to open the doors, but of course it does not function when the car has no electrical power.

It’s been my experience that the interior car door release button confuses passengers. In the Model X, it looks like this.

Tesla Model X door open button

However, anyone who frequently uses the car rapidly gets used to these buttons. The window controls are easy to operate as well.

If you drive the car into a body of water, however, the electric system shuts down for safety. Neither the electric door release nor the windows will operate.

There is an emergency door release. Take a look at the diagram above. Do you see the emergency door release? It is not labelled.

I know where it is on my Teslas because an employee at the Tesla dealer showed it to me. But I asked my wife, who drives our cars frequently, if she knew where the emergency door release is, and she didn’t.

Manual door release on Tesla Model X

It’s not even clear that that control actually is a control. That is by design. You are not supposed to use this control except when there is no power. The employee at the Tesla dealer warned me that opening the door that way might subsequently require service to reset the door.

In the case of Angela Chao, it’s worth noting that opening a car door or window while a car is submerged is extremely difficult due to water pressure. If you were unable to open the window when the electrical system was still working, the best strategy would be to wait until the car filled with water to equalize the pressure, then operate the manual door release. But doing that while panicking and attempting not to drown is not going to be easy. As in most cars, the windows and windshield are made of tempered glass or polycarbonate and are very difficult to break.

Has the Model X taken design elegance too far?

Tesla would like your operation of the car to be as slick as can be. Things like gear-shift stalks and manual door releases get in the way.

This design aesthetic is familiar to anyone who has an iPhone or Macintosh. Apple keeps removing ports, like the 3.5 mm headphone jack, to keep the device as simple as possible.

There is joy in using an elegant product like this. The design feels wonderfully perfect. But in many cases, removing a separate control can make things more difficult to figure out, especially when using an unfamiliar function in an emergency.

You might think Angela Chao’s death is her own fault, for not knowing how to operate the car properly.

But I think the over-optimized elegance of the design is a contributing factor.

Cars should have gear-shift stalks and clearly labelled manual door releases that function even when the power is off. They might mess up the clarity and simplicity of the design aesthetic. But in an emergency, they might be the difference between life and death.

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  1. A friend who has used a wheelchair all her life was driving her old van one day about twenty years ago, with her twin girls. The van caught fire – shorted wires or something like that – and the electric doors and windows locked shut. My friend immediately pulled into a nearby service station. One of the employees there recognized the problem when he saw not only smoke in and around the van, but also my friend and her two little girls beating against the windows to get out. He took a tire iron to the doors and windows and got them out safely. It was a very scary situation that could have resulted in three deaths.

    Being in a wheelchair means that my friend has to have fully electric vehicles in order to get around, but incidents like that require excellent, flawless systems. I don’t know if there are requirements for such vehicles to get all systems checked thoroughly at regular intervals – my friend and her husband would know: they are both involved in state and national disability boards.

    Personally, I prefer “old-fashioned” cars with a manual transmission. They give me a better “feel” for the road. Another asset, these days, is that they are low on the auto-theft radar because most modern thieves don’t know how to drive a stick-shift.

  2. This is a tragedy, and one that could have and should have been avoided, with better design. I would be willing to bet there are lots of people who work at Tesla who have pointed these things out, and have been frustrated to have been shut down by others. Those others may now feel responsible. Perhaps they should.

    Personally, I don’t think I even want to own a car that doesn’t have tactile buttons for the radio, let alone the gear shift. The touch screen displays are completely inefficient and insufficient for operating while driving. Even if you can do everything you want with voice activation, I think I still like the option to use real, old-fashioned buttons.

  3. Maybe, just maybe, she was pissed drunk? Of course, the mainstream media thinks it is Tesla’s fault.

    Tesla is not perfect, but about the safest car out there. Coming from somebody who has driven one for 7+ years.