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

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

Updated on Author: Brian Jones | Reviewer: Sergei Lemberg

Many consumers who are hunting for an electric vehicle with lots of room opt for the 2021 Tesla Model Y. Why wouldn’t they when the automaker claims these models are “designed for safety?” A good guess is they might not because there are hundreds of complaints about this model as well as 15 recalls and 7 NHTSA investigations. Many of these indicate enormous safety issues. .

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Most Common Problems

Smaller and less expensive than other Tesla vehicles, the Model Y is designed to exceed safety standards. But with hundreds of complaints issued to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) about the 2021 Tesla Model Y alone, owners are questioning how safe this EV is.

By mid-October 2023 there were 768 complaints — huge numbers by anyone’s standards. Of these, forward collision avoidance topped the list with 510, followed by vehicle speed control with 135 complaints. Service brakes are next on the list with 158 complaints, and the electrical system with 75. In comparison, 35 visibility-related problems, 21 suspension problems, 17 about the powertrain, 14 related to back-over prevention, 11 to airbags, 11 to structure, and a whole lot more seem insignificant. But they aren’t necessarily minor.

For example, airbag issues mostly relate to them not deploying. Crashes that weren’t caused by Tesla drivers, resulted in injuries. Fuel/propulsion problems have caused crashes. And there are many other complaints that pinpoint safety issues.

Additionally, there are 7 investigations that involve the 2021 Tesla Model Y as well as 15 recalls. With all this data, you’d imagine that there would be a mountain of documentation from Tesla for dealerships to absorb. We’d know about these because the law requires all manufacturers to provide the NHTSA with the communications they share with dealers. However there are only 26 manufacturer communications on file with the NHTSA.

2021 Model Y Investigations

While the first two investigations were launched in 2021, by mid 2023 the total number of open investigations was four:

  1. Prompted by unexpected brake activation complaints from 354 owners, the NHTSA launched an investigation in February 2022. It is typified by phantom braking and has not yet been resolved. Tesla says that the reason vehicles brake in this manner is due to a suite of advanced driver assistance system (ADAS) safety features. Drivers say that it causes random and rapid deceleration which is a safety risk.
  2. An electrical system issue prompted an investigation into the Tesla Model Y’s autopilot system. It was motivated by complaints that vehicles crashed while Autopilot was engaged.
  3. Listed as an Unknown or Other issue, a shift interlock request problem led to another NHTSA investigation in April 2023. This resulted from a Tesa defect petition that requested a recall of all Tesla model year 2013 to add an interlock. Once this is added, the driver needs to apply the brakes to be able to shift from Drive to Reverse. It was the result of many sudden unintended acceleration events and was intended to reduce them.
  4. The most recent investigation was opened on June 29, 2023. It is regarded as a vehicle speed control issue that relates to “intermittent high electrical current demands” on vehicle systems that may have been examined by the NHTSA Office of Defects Investigation (ODI).

Recalls

In many instances, hundreds of thousands of Tesla vehicles are implicated in recalls. One affects more than a million (1,096,762). A “visibility” issue, this recall warns that closing windows may exert force and pinch occupants’ fingers before they retract.

Nearly half of the recalls relate to the electrical system, which is a major concern for an EV. They indicate that:

  • As many as 53,822 Tesla vehicles may not stop at a stop sign due to “rolling stop” functionality. This is linked to full self-driving (beta) software that malfunctions.
  • The seat belt chime on more than 800,000 Tesla vehicles may not activate. This means that the driver may not realize seat belts aren’t fastened.
  • Windshields on 26,681 vehicles may not defrost properly.
  • The pedestrian warning sound on 578,607-594,894 vehicles may be obscured — depending on the recall (there are 2 of them).
  • Seven unlucky owners face the prospect of their fisheye and narrow camera view being swapped. Tesla warns that this can impair the autosteer and automatic emergency braking (AEB) performance, which can lead to a crash.
  • A mammoth number of Teslas (362,758) have full self-driving software that can cause a crash. This can result in vehicles traveling straight through intersections while in turn-only lanes, entering stop sign-controlled intersections without stopping completely, and going into intersections “during a steady yellow traffic signal without due caution.”

Other recalls relate to exterior lighting, forward collision avoidance, lane departure, seat belts, hydraulic service brakes, steering, suspension, and visibility.

2021 Tesla Model Y Complaint Summary

Complaint CategoryNumber of Complaints
Forward Collision Avoidance: Adaptive Cruise Control
376
Forward Collision Avoidance: Automatic Emergency Braking
308
Service Brakes
160
Vehicle Speed Control
144
Forward Collision Avoidance: Warnings
92
Unknown Or Other
87
Electrical System
72
Steering
50
Lane Departure: Assist
34
Visibility/wiper
34

Forward Collision Avoidance Problems

The 2021 Tesla Model Y has several collision-avoidance features the automaker says are “designed to increase the safety of you and your passengers.” These include forward collision warning that detects a high risk of a frontal collision, automatic emergency braking, and obstacle-aware acceleration.

Yet, alarmingly, more than 66% of the complaints to the NHTSA about the 2021 Tesla Model Y are listed as being forward collision-control problems. Autopilot, cruise control, and emergency and phantom braking are the major issues owners are complaining about. Some combine more than one of these issues and many include additional components, like brakes, steering, the electrical system, lane departure, and vehicle speed control.

More generally, about 48% of the complaints pinpoint adaptive cruise control as the issue. Close to 39% identify automatic emergency braking as the issue.

An owner from Texas has experienced several incidents when the entire forward collision-avoidance system has failed. The car’s computer “will suddenly error out and cruise control, AEB, forward collision warnings, and lane keep assist are not available. A warning ‘cruise control unavailable’ shows if you attempt to engage autopilot or FSD. No forward collision warnings, no auto slowing down.” The complaint states that speed, weather, and time of day were irrelevant.

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Emergency Braking Problems

The emergency braking feature is designed to reduce the impact of a collision by automatically braking. However owners are complaining that the feature malfunctions, leading to collisions or near collisions. Some identify spontaneous emergency braking as phantom braking.

An owner from Ohio experienced “hydroplaning,” which he states has led to “close to fatal accidents.” Driving in the rain, “the car inappropriately used emergency braking that led to (an) accident.” Driving at 70-75 mph, which was the speed limit, the car suddenly started spinning without any warning. The car was damaged “due to hitting the road.” The complaint maintains that this has happened to many other Tesla owners.

An owner from California reports having “thousands of instances of automatic emergency braking (phantom braking) episodes while using cruise control or autopilot.”

Phantom Braking Problems

Phantom braking is an issue that Tesla is well aware of, as an owner from Oregon discovered. While driving down a freeway at 70 mph, the Model Y stopped suddenly even though there was nothing in front of the car. There were “6 cars behind me and everyone swerved to avoid me or they would have hit me. I was terrified. I called Tesla and they said it was ‘phantom braking’.” It happened again about 8 hours later.

However, many owners complain that Tesla doesn’t respond to complaints about phantom braking. “We have recently experienced a significant and concerning increase in incidents of phantom braking and have thus far been unable to receive an adequate response from Tesla. We have had at least six instances of this occurring today.”

Another owner who experienced phantom braking states: “Tesla refuses to look at the car because I did not have the exact time the problems occurred.”

Many complaints report recurring incidents. For example, an owner from California experienced “a series of extreme phantom braking events” and narrowly avoided crashing. “Fortunately, these experiences helped me to instantly respond by accelerating and moving onto the left lane shoulder to avoid a disastrous accident. It is appalling that this has been happening.”

Another owner experienced repeated phantom braking. This was “caused by shadows from clouds, pavement coloration changes, billboards some distance from the highway, large advisory signs, and even pieces of blown-out truck tires on the shoulder produce sudden deceleration of over 30 mph in just seconds.”

Cruise Control

The Tesla Model Y features traffic-aware cruise control. Like traditional cruise control, it is designed to maintain a set driving speed. But it also accelerates or slows down to maintain the following distance from vehicles ahead. Tesla states it’s “designed for your driving comfort and convenience and is not a collision warning or avoidance system.” Some drivers experience such discomfort, that they won’t use it.

A typical problem is described by a Washington owner who states that while using cruise control, the car suddenly brakes for no reason. Sometimes it’s a “quick brake for a second or two. But multiple times the car braked hard enough to have things in the car fly off the seats.” Even though they’d used cruise control three months before with no issues, “we didn’t use the cruise control after that.”

An owner from California describes how the Model Y braked three times while using adaptive cruise control on a highway. “I was very lucky that I was able to hit the gas pedal to try to maintain speed so that I would not be rear-ended.”

Another owner describes how the cruise control system began to malfunction shortly after he noticed “an unusual burning smell coming from the vehicle.” The driver was unable to control the speed of the vehicle. Then the power steering failed and the car veered into a curb damaging the wheels and suspension … and caught fire. “I cannot stress enough how distressing this situation was. Not only did it put my safety and the safety of others at risk, but it also raises questions about the reliability and effectiveness of the various systems within the vehicle. I have always trusted Tesla’s commitment to innovation and cutting-edge technology, but this incident has shattered my confidence in the vehicle’s reliability.”

Autopilot Problems

The 2021 Tesla Model Y autopilot feature enables drivers to set the speed by choosing either the speed limit or current speed of the car. But an owner from Vermont states that when autopilot is engaged and set to “a reasonable speed” of 35 or 45 mph, “as I approach the acceleration ramp, the setting jumps to 90 and then quickly back to 85.” Despite software updates, it keeps happening.

While traveling at 75 mph using autopilot, another owner experienced phantom braking. There were no obstructions in sight. The weather was sunny and clear, and there was no traffic ahead. “Two minutes later, the car completely ignored a deer standing on the hard shoulder!”

Brake Problems

More than 20% of NHTSA complaints relate to the vehicle’s service brakes. In addition to emergency braking and/or phantom braking, there are other problems with the braking system. These very different issues were experienced by owners from different parts of California.

Tesla Model Y vehicle brakes sometimes fail. “The brake of (my) Tesla suddenly failed while I was driving. It has happened multiple times even after the service center claimed the issue was fixed. When the issue happened, the brake was not effective and made (a) huge noise while I pressed it.”

Another owner had “active low brake fluid level alerts.” A Tesla technician found the rear right brake hose was damaged due to incorrect hose routing. He replaced the hose, bled the entire brake system, and installed a new caliper bolt after discovering that it had not been installed in the factory.

Twice an owner experienced multiple errors while driving. Several systems were disabled, including regenerative and emergency braking. The second time, the front motor was disabled and the car didn’t have enough power to go uphill. “The vehicle stopped in the middle of the highway and started rolling backwards. After I was able to turn the vehicle around, the brakes were grinding and did not stop the vehicle. There was a smell of burnt rubber, and the brake pedal started ‘popping’ and moving back and forth on its own. The engine failure has occurred twice, and all of (the) other errors have occurred 4 times since June 2023. I made an appointment with the Tesla service center and they canceled my appointment, for no reason.”

The owner took the Model Y to Tesla after the second incident and they “told me that they thought this entire thing was ‘strange’ and that they have never heard of this issue.”

Problems with the Electrical System

As an EV, the electrical system needs to be top-notch for an enjoyable ride. But 10% of NHTSA complaints are about the Model Y’s electrical system. These are varied, ranging from faulty key fobs to faulty cooling systems. But the most common electrical faults involve the 12-volt battery failing or not charging.

Battery Problems

An owner from Arizona describes how the Model Y shut off while accelerating out of a parking lot at 30 mph. The control screen went black and the car wouldn’t accelerate and it stopped. “It felt like an emergency brake was turned on or the back wheels locked up. I had to turn into the center turn lane.” The doors wouldn’t open and the hazard lights wouldn’t turn on. The driver opened the door manually, with the handle “and forced my way out” before running to safety. Tesla repaired the car and said that the 12-volt battery had failed. “They said it’s very rare and they have not seen that happen while the car was driving.”

The tow truck driver who assisted another driver whose 12-volt battery failed said “This happens frequently.” On this occasion, the owner had put her dogs in the back seat and closed the back door but was unable to open the driver’s door. “I tried to release the charging cable connected to my home charger. The car did not respond via Bluetooth or mobile or access card key. The car was completely dead with my dogs inside. I live in Palm Springs. It was 90 degrees and sunny outside… Nobody at Tesla seems to see how dangerous this situation was. It could have been a baby locked inside the car. Tesla has no culture or attitude of taking this seriously or seeing this as a potentially life threatening issue. It’s shocking to me how everyone I spoke with at Tesla saw this as just another glitch or customer trouble ticket.”

What Should You Do If Your Model Y is a Lemon

A good way to identify if your 2021 Tesla Y model is a lemon is to consider whether problems recur and/or affect your safety. Many of the problems reported to the NHTSA and other reliable sources describe recurring issues that owners believe affect driving safety.

Whether you have experienced similar issues or something different, if you think you have a lemon, Lemberg Law will assess your problems and advise you. The law makes Tesla pay the legal fees for lemon law cases, so we’ll do this 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
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