The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has opened a preliminary evaluation into 280,000 Tesla Model 3 and Model Y vehicles after some customers complained of loss of steering control and power steering.

Reuters reported that the US auto safety regulator opened a probe after it received 12 complaints from owners of 2023 Tesla Model 3 and Model Y electric vehicles. According to one of the complaints sent by a Model 3 driver in May, the "car steering felt stuck and slid off the road which resulted in crashing into a tree."

Another driver in June reported that a two-week old Tesla Model Y was leaving a shopping center in Alpharetta, Georgia when "suddenly steering wheel did not steer. It was hard and saw the alert. Went to very close to opposite side of traffic and some how made it to across the road inside the shopping center."

A more recent complaint said a Tesla Model Y that was less than 30 days old in April was turned on and the "wheel jerked hard right and made a thud," followed by a "Steering Assist Reduced" screen warning and an error code.

Gallery: 2022 Tesla Model 3

The driver said power steering was disabled and told the NHTSA the car felt unsafe to steer. "Tesla has moved my service visit from May 2 to May 25 due to a backlog of parts. They confirmed this is a recently known issue and noted the steering rack might be replaced entirely," the customer wrote in the complaint.

A Tesla driver in Honolulu said a week after buying a Tesla the steering wheel started locking up randomly, something that "occurred six times on different dates before we were able to get it to the Tesla service department." The owner said the Tesla "currently remains at Tesla for the next 3 weeks while we await a new steering rack/motor."

The NHTSA probe is the first step of a formal investigation to determine if the issue poses an unreasonable safety risk. The agency would need to upgrade the probe to an engineering analysis before it could require Tesla to issue a recall. Tesla did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

Judging by the symptoms exhibited by Tesla cars in the complaints, this doesn't seem to be an issue that can be resolved via an over-the-air software update. One thing is certain: if Tesla ends up issuing a recall and it has to replace steering racks on 280,000 cars, it will be a pretty expensive one.

Gallery: Tesla Model Y

Got a tip for us? Email: tips@insideevs.com