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Angela Chao death: Tesla in spotlight as investigators maintain silence

Foremost Group CEO Angela Chao reportedly died after accidentally putting her Tesla Model X car in reverse and backing into a pond, highlighting safety concern over Tesla's gearshift design.

Tesla vehicles are facing scrutiny after the death of Angela Chao, a shipping CEO who drowned in a tragic car accident on a Texas ranch last month.

Chao, the sister of former U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao and sister-in-law of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., died February 11 after accidentally putting her 2020 Tesla Model X SUV into reverse and backing into a pond, The Wall Street Journal reported. Authorities in Blanco County have refused to release additional information on the accident while an investigation is ongoing. 

According to the Journal, this was not the first time Chao had mistakenly put her Tesla into reverse. Her tragic death has put the spotlight on Tesla's gearshift design, which has received dozens of complaints over the years for confusing users.

Tesla did not respond to a request for comment. 

FOREMOST GROUP CEO ANGELA CHAO, SISTER-IN-LAW OF SENATE MINORITY LEADER MITCH MCCONNELL, DEAD AT 50

Reports have identified the investigation as a criminal probe even though preliminary results suggest that Chao's death was an accident. The Blanco County Sheriff's Office did not respond to multiple requests for comment. 

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) told FOX Business there have been about 20 complaints from vehicle owners about potential shifter issues among Model Year 2015-2023 Tesla Model 3, S and Y vehicles in the last five years. The agency said it has not received specific gearshift complaints about issues with the Model X. 

At least 12 complaints filed with the Department of Transportation and first reported by Business Insider are related to how Tesla vehicles are put into reverse. Seven users have reported confusion with the gearshift design, resulting in them sometimes putting the car into drive when they intended to shift to reverse, or vice versa. Five other complaints were from people who said their Teslas appeared to switch between drive and reverse without warning, according to Business Insider.

More Tesla owners have written about the issue in Tesla forums. In one post, a user in 2022 wrote that they had accidentally "shifted to reverse instead of drive" three times in the two years they'd owned a Tesla.

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Another Tesla driver reported in 2022 that they had "just nearly had an accident" because of confusion over how to put the car in reverse. "Within the first month of having my car I did something similar," another user responded, according to Business Insider.

In the 2020 Tesla Model X, users can shift gears using a drive stalk attached to the steering wheel. When the car is in park, the driver must press the brake pedal to shift. To go in reverse, the drive stalk must be pushed all the way up and released. The car will only shift into reverse when Model X is stopped or moving less than 5 mph, the Model X owner's manual states.

Newer Tesla models use a touch screen to shift gears. In both cases, the gearshift is different from the gear selector used in automatic transmission cars or gear stick in manual vehicles. 

In Chao's case, the confusion proved fatal. The Wall Street Journal reported that she got into her Model X to depart from a gathering with friends on her 900 acre ranch in the Texas Hill Country. She attempted to make three-point turn for a quick, four-minute drive back to her house when she accidentally put the SUV into reverse. Chao reportedly called her friends in a panic after the car moved backward and tipped over an embankment and into a pond.

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Drivers in a sinking vehicle have only one minute to exit the vehicle safely, according to Dr. Gordon Giesbrecht, a researcher at the University of Manitoba who studies vehicle submersion. The best way out of the vehicle is to open or break the window — a difficult task without a tool called a center punch to smash the window when it is submerged. 

Reaching for a cell phone, as Chao did, can be deadly as it will use precious seconds needed to unbuckle your seatbelt and escape the car. Help will not arrive in time to save anyone trapped inside the vehicle, Giesbrecht's research has found. 

In Chao's case, an emergency unit for Blanco County took 24 minutes to respond to the call for help, according to a fire department incident report reviewed by the Journal. The Tesla vehicle was completely submerged by the time rescue personnel arrived. First responders determined that they needed a dive team, but there was none available. An emergency services worker and firefighter entered the water with rescue tools.

When the car was finally pulled from the water, Chao was found unresponsive inside. Attempts to resuscitate her were unsuccessful, according to Ben Oakley, emergency services chief of Blanco County. 

CLICK HERE TO READ MORE ON FOX BUSINESS 

Angela Chao was the youngest of six children born to James Chao and the late Ruth Mulan Chu Chao, immigrants from China who moved to the U.S. in the 1950s. She was greatly respected in the shipping industry and mourned as a "brilliant woman, a charismatic and visionary leader and much-loved by all her sisters, our entire family and friends," James Chao said in a statement announcing her death.

NHTSA said there are no federal occupant protection requirements for vehicles submerged in water. Glass-breaking tools are not required under federal regulations, but consumers are free to purchase them, an agency spokesperson said.

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