2021 Tesla Model 3 Problems and Top Complaints – Is Your Car A Lemon?

Forward collision avoidance, brake, and vehicle speed control issues are among the top complaints received by the NHTSA from vehicle owners

Updated on Author: Brian Jones | Reviewer: Sergei Lemberg

When asked about the top electric cars on the road, everyone already knows Tesla. The 2021 Model 3 streaked ahead gaining the number 1 spot on cars.com’s American-made index. That’s noteworthy, since it’s the first all-electric vehicle to top this list ever. So, why are there hundreds of complaints from consumers to the NHTSA? Most relate to issues with adaptive cruise control and automatic emergency braking control. But hundreds of other complaints also relate to service brakes and vehicle speed control… and more.

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Most Common Problems

Not quite as popular as the Tesla Model Y, the 2021 Tesla Model 3 “is designed for electric-powered performance, with quick acceleration, long range and fast charging.” But complaints lodged with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) highlight frequent braking, slow acceleration, and a multitude of other issues that are causing concern to owners.

Pinpointing the most common problems isn’t easy because many are linked to others. With 494 complaints listed by late October 2023, there were 246 forward collision avoidance complaints that identified adaptive cruise control as a problem and 204 as emergency braking problems. But there were also more than 100 brake-related complaints, some of which weren’t linked to forward collision avoidance issues.

Vehicle speed control is another major issue, which is sometimes combined as a forward collision avoidance problem. Of particular concern is sudden, ultra-fast acceleration, which has allegedly contributed to fatal accidents. This is an issue that the NHTSA has been investigating since June 2023.

Other issues involve brake failure and phantom braking, supposedly opposite problems. Then there are complaints about airbags, backover prevention, the electrical system, engine and engine cooling, exterior lighting, the fuel/propulsion system, lane departure, powertrain, seats and seat belts, steering, structure, suspension, tires, visibility, and the wheels of the Tesla Model 3.

But it gets worse. There are also 14 recalls as well as 7 investigations that involve this super-popular EV. But Tesla is clearly not too worried since there are only a total of 24 manufacturer communications including technical service bulletins (TSB) issued to help dealerships rectify consumer problems. These don’t appear to address any of the issues highlighted in the recalls or investigations, never mind complaints!

2021 Tesla Model 3 Complaint Summary

Complaint CategoryNumber of Complaints
Forward Collision Avoidance: Adaptive Cruise Control
256
Forward Collision Avoidance: Automatic Emergency Braking
208
Service Brakes
113
Vehicle Speed Control
108
Unknown Or Other
68
Forward Collision Avoidance: Warnings
67
Electrical System
40
Visibility/wiper
22
Steering
14
Lane Departure: Assist
11

Recalls

With a total of 14 recalls, it may not surprise some people that electrical system problems top the list. These range from a rolling stop functionality issue that can prevent vehicles from stopping to windshields not defrosting properly and full self-driving software that can cause crashes. There are also several forward collision avoidance-related recalls including one that warns of activation of the automatic emergency brake (AEB) system. This can cause cars to stop suddenly, increasing the risk of a crash.

Others relate to airbags that may be twisted, as well as lane departure, seat belts, brakes, steering, suspension, and visibility.

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Investigations that Involve the 2021 Model 3

Electrical system issues also top the list of 7 investigations. Only one is still open, and this relates to autopilot and first responder scenes. The investigation was opened in June 2022 after “an accumulation of crashes in which Tesla vehicles, operating with Autopilot engaged, struck stationary in-road or roadside first responder vehicles tending to pre-existing collision scenes.” NHTSA is still assessing issues related to “vehicle control authority, driver engagement technologies, and related human factors considerations.”

Another open investigation relates to unexpected brake activation, which is a problem that features high on the list of consumer complaints. This was initiated by 354 complaints from Tesla Model 3 and Model Y vehicle owners. These commonly report phantom braking issues.

Sudden unintended acceleration is the subject of another open investigation. So, too, is an issue that requires drivers to shift from Drive to Reverse to reduce sudden unintended acceleration events.

Complaints that Report Fatal Accidents

Every serious fault reported about any vehicle is of major concern. But when complaints report fatalities, concern immediately escalates.

In May 2022, the father of an Ohio man who owned a 2021 Tesla Model 3 tells how his son “was involved in a fatal collision while driving at an undisclosed speed with the autopilot activated.” A friend, who was a passenger in the vehicle, stated that “the autopilot malfunctioned, causing the vehicle to inadvertently drive off the road, hit a tree, and then catch fire.” There had been some kind of bright orange light on the windshield just before the failure occurred. The friend got out of the Tesla Model 3, but the driver was unconscious and couldn’t get out. The fire department extinguished the fire and the friend received medical attention for burns and bruises on his legs. The driver “died as a result of intense thermal heat and smoke inhalation.”

Another complaint from Texas blames sudden acceleration for the deaths of two people. It relates to a high-speed collision that took place on the second floor of a hospital parking garage in Houston. Both the driver and the passenger were killed. A question has arisen as to how the vehicle could have accelerated at such a high rate, in such a short period of time, especially inside a parking garage?

Unintended Acceleration Problems

This Tesla boasts quick acceleration, but this isn’t what consumers were expecting.

An owner from California describes how the Tesla Model 3 suddenly accelerated while driving at about 20 mph while making a turn. Fortunately he was able to brake.

Another owner from California also managed to avoid crashing after the Model 3 accelerated unexpectedly while driving at about 20 mph. “Using the brake immediately worked. This has happened a few times with my car. The sudden acceleration surprised my wife and she asked what happened. The car does not have Full Self Driving installed and Autopilot had been off for several miles. There were no warning messages or chimes.”

An owner from Florida had a similar experience. After pulling into a parking spot he tapped on the brake and “it suddenly accelerated forward. It jerked so quickly forward that the back of my head was pushed into the headrest like a whiplash. Luckily, there was not a car parked in front of me because I generally park away from other cars.” After 36 years of driving, this was his first accident!

Phantom Braking Problems

Phantom braking is a widespread, very well known problem with Tesla Cars. An owner explains: “Using only cameras since around 2021 for adaptive cruise control, the car will ‘slam on the brakes’ even though the road is completely clear ahead. This can easily cause an accident if there is a car following you. It has occurred several times since I bought the car (in) January 2022.” The complaint continues to say that “a rear end collision could occur when the car’s brakes are activated so hard that the car decelerates from 70 to 20 in seconds.”

Another owner states they are afraid to drive the Tesla Model 3 after experiencing at least six episodes of phantom braking within three hours. And another states that the car phantom brakes “constantly when going over a hill when it does not have vision. The braking is aggressive at freeway speeds and poses a risk for rear end collisions or road rage incidents if people think they are being brake checked.”

And there are hundreds more.

Problems Related to Phantom and Emergency Braking

Adaptive cruise control, automatic emergency braking, and other issues all appear to be interlinked with phantom braking.

An owner from Nevada states that the adaptive cruise control “autopilot” system unexpectedly disengaged and applied light to heavy braking numerous times. “The system frequently mistakes a particular highway sign for a stopped vehicle and applies moderate braking.” The system applies light to heavy braking “where I simply cannot figure out what the camera is interpreting as a hazard. This puts me and other drivers around me at risk…

“Tesla has not been able to remedy this problem and I do not consider the cruise control system to be safe to use.”

Many drivers say they were nearly rear-ended when their cars braked suddenly. Some say it happens when they use autopilot, while others say it only happens when using cruise control. Most say it happens in good weather.

An owner from Oklahoma states that phantom braking happens when autopilot is engaged. It happens often and is “uncalled for, scary, and dangerous.” But an owner from Missouri states that “while driving on interstate highways, “the vehicle initiated braking multiple times in cruise control only (not on autopilot).”

Similarly, an owner from California states that the emergency braking system forced the car quickly to a stop on many occasions while autopilot was engaged. Yet an owner from Arizona states the car will randomly brake while using cruise control. This sometimes happens “very abruptly and hard, even though there is no obstacle, the road is clear, there is no weather, no danger, etc. There is no way to disable this ‘feature’ if I do not like it so that I can use cruise control normally. The only solution is to drive it manually and not use cruise control.”

Other Forward Collision Avoidance Problems

An owner from Virginia describes a crash while using a self-driving mode at 50 mph. The Tesla “would not stay in the lane and drive slowly into the next lane.” Then, “while using a self-driving mode at 15 mph, a pedestrian walked into the lane and the vehicle did not detect the person and hit the pedestrian. No airbags deployed.” The driver was uninjured, but the pedestrian suffered a fractured leg and arm and needed medical attention. The vehicle was not drivable. Incredibly, the local dealer couldn’t detect a failure so the vehicle was not repaired. But the failure persisted.

Another owner states that “My fully self-driving computer has crashed for the 3rd time since owning the vehicle which controls all of the car’s safety features… Tesla says they won’t do anything because the car is past the warranty by 9,000 miles.. .so I’m basically stuck with a 1980s Tesla.”

An owner from Arizona describes a rather different issue that involves the Tesla using “auto high beam” when in autopilot. “The pros of this can allow drivers to utilize the light so the cameras can detect anything to avoid any possible wrecks, but it does not have an option to be turned off. Along with other people online, my brights have flashed at people on the interstate and highways or haven’t turned off at all. This is irritating and limits the way I am comfortable with using autopilot.”

What Should You Do if You Think Your Model 3 is a Lemon?

If your 2021 Tesla Model has recurring problems it may be a lemon. If this is the case, you can call our Helpline or fill out a contact form and Lemberg Law will assess your problems free of charge.

Every year, auto manufacturers buy back, replace or pay cash settlements to thousands of ‘lemon’ owners. You might be one of them.

Brian Jones

About the Author:

Brian Jones spent more than 30 years working as an ASE Certified Master Tech and Parts Specialist at multiple dealerships. Brian has become an authority in the industry, traveling across the country to consult for car dealerships and contributing his expertise as a writer for several major automotive publications. In his spare time, Brian enjoys working on pickup trucks, muscle cars, Jeeps and anything related to motorsports.

See more posts from Brian Jones
2 COMMENTS
  • Paul W

    High voltage power lines and sources can drastically interfere with Tesla 3 touch screen which can render car undrivable and dangerous.

  • Greg D

    My Tesla 2020 Model 3 they won’t honor warranty because of dust. I live in Nevada there is no way around dust.

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