Angela Chao's death reveals Tesla's long-standing reverse gear issues

Angela Chao's death reveals Tesla's long-standing reverse gear issues
Angela Chao at a New York City Opera pre-gala celebration in 2010. Chao drowned after accidentally reversing her Tesla into a pond in Texas in February 2024.Patrick McMullan/Getty Images
  • Shipping magnate Angela Chao drowned last month after mistakenly backing her Tesla into a pond.
  • She told a friend she often accidentally put the car in reverse instead of drive.

Tesla owners raised concerns for years about design flaws and seeming malfunctions that caused them to accidentally drive in reverse before the death of the shipping magnate Angela Chao, who drowned last month after accidentally backing her Tesla into a pond.

While leaving a party at a ranch outside Austin last month, Chao attempted a three-point turn in her Tesla Model X SUV, The Wall Street Journal reported. But instead of putting the car into drive, she accidentally put it in reverse. The car drove over an embankment and into a pond.

The error was fatal. But it wasn't the first time Chao had mistakenly put the car in reverse, the Journal reported.

Nor is Chao the only person to have problems with the Tesla gearshift. Business Insider found 12 complaints related to the Tesla reverse function in a database of automobile consumer complaints kept by the US Department of Transportation.

Seven of those complaints were from people who said the way Tesla had designed the gearshift was confusing, resulting in them sometimes putting the car in drive when they meant to put it in reverse or vice versa. The other five complaints were from people who said their cars appeared to switch between drive and reverse without warning.


The issue has also found its way to Tesla forums, where one Tesla owner in 2022 wrote that they had accidentally "shifted to reverse instead of drive by mistake" three times in the two years they'd had the car.

Another Tesla owner wrote in 2022 that they "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.

Still, in the context of the notoriously buggy cars, reverse-shifting issues are relatively small potatoes. The federal database where BI located 12 concerns about reverse shifting contained 4,228 total complaints related to Teslas.

By comparison, the DOT received more than 700 complaints about so-called "phantom braking," or the propensity for Teslas with autopilot engaged to slam on the brakes for imaginary hazards while in the full flow of traffic. At least one person died in a Tesla as a result of phantom braking. Regulators opened an investigation into phantom braking in Teslas in 2022.

Tesla did not respond to Business Insider's request for comment. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the bureau of the Department of Transportation that investigates vehicle defects, did not respond to a request for comment.


Depending on the model and year, Teslas have two different gearshifts. It's not clear which model year Chao was driving, but both mechanisms have generated complaints.

Prior to late 2021, drivers of all Teslas shifted into reverse by depressing the brake pedal and flicking a gear stalk to the right of the steering wheel up — a motion that some complainants said was confusing because, for some models and years, the same motion on the gear stalk disengages the car's autopilot mode when the brake is not depressed.

One driver of a Tesla Model Y said they accidentally put the car in reverse in 2022 while waiting at a stoplight, narrowly avoiding a collision.

When the light turned green, they "instinctively" flicked the right-hand gear stalk upward to disengage autopilot so they could turn left, they told the DOT.

"Unfortunately, this 'conditioned' behavior of mine inadvertently put the car in reverse!! I pressed the accelerator and nearly backed into the car behind me," the complainant wrote to the agency. "I am 99% certain that I did not have my foot on the brake pedal because I rarely use it nowadays," they wrote, noting that they rely on the car's autopilot mode to brake for them.


"While I certainly realize that I am fully responsible for the confusion, I do believe that Tesla safety engineers might want to explore this scenario and seek out a preventive safe-guard," they continued. "Perhaps software can prevent car from switching to reverse unless the brake pedal is depressed. Or maybe a much larger \"r\" indicator that blinks and beeps. I'm sure it is an easy fix."

Tesla Model X and Model S cars produced after 2021 come with a touchscreen gearshift. Drivers put the car in reverse by pulling an icon downward on the center console. That change has also generated complaints.

One Tesla driver told the DOT in 2022 that the touchscreen gearshift was "unintuitive and dangerous," adding that they "had a minor incident due to fail to shift to drive, stuck at reverse then hit a parked vehicle in a parking lot at low speed."