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Car enthusiasts love innovative new car safety features. One of the latest that will be far more common moving forward is retractable or ‘pop out’ car handles. Those who favor sleek silhouettes uninterrupted by door handles are bound to love these.

Until they don’t. Some of us remember concealed headlights on cars, and those were great until one or both of the motors powering them died. Then you ended up under the front end of the car, cranking them up by hand because it’s dark and you need to get home. The problem with these new door handles isn’t just the risk of inconvenience. In their current form, some of them could ultimately be dangerous.

Pop-out car door handles

A pop-out car door handle on a Tesla Model 3 electric vehicle on display in Washington, DC
A Tesla Model 3 pop-out door handle | Salwan Georges/The Washington Post via Getty Images

As with most vehicle innovations, pop-out door handles first appeared on high-end luxury vehicles. They’re utilized by manufacturers like Citroën, Land Rover, Mercedes, and Tesla, according to Tuning Blog. These handles are retractable, countersinking, or embedded into the door to improve the vehicle’s aerodynamics and its visual appeal.

These pop-out handles use an electric extension mechanism. The extension is activated by different means, depending on the automaker. It could be approaching the vehicle with a key or stroking the outer surface of the door handle.

For safety, if the power source fails, there has to be a manual way to open the doors. An emergency release must be offered and functional, so the driver is prepared for all contingencies.

One terrible design flaw with this convenience feature

As the owners of newer Tesla Model 3s and Tesla Model Ys discovered earlier this year, these pop-out door handles can freeze in cold weather conditions. While normal door handles fixed on the door can also freeze, they are far easier to open than these new concealed door handles. 

According to CarBuzz, the concealed Tesla door handles are getting stuck in the cold. Tesla’s official advice? Give it a whack. 

It turns out they’re serious. The automaker advises owners faced with a frozen door handle to knock on it as you would a neighbor’s front door. Tesla did include a small diagram in the owner’s manuals of the affected models to provide more information on the knocking technique they prescribe.

Is this a problem for Model S and Model X drivers? Apparently not, as those models have power door handles that are equipped to break through coatings of ice.

Owners of Model 3s or Model Ys with these door handles are posting solutions for this problem. These consumer solutions include using a hairdryer to thaw the handle, swinging at the handle “caveman style,” and buying stick-on door handles from vendors like Amazon. 

The dangerous fire risk of pop-out car handles

The pop-out door handles on a Tesla Model S are alleged to have resulted in the death of one man, according to CarScoops

In 2018, Omar Awan lost control of his Model S and crashed into a palm tree. The motorized door handles are said to have malfunctioned. As a result, the police couldn’t open the doors as the car was engulfed in flames and smoke because the handles were stuck in a retracted position. A wrongful death lawsuit was filed.

According to the lawsuit, the fire started in the battery pack of the vehicle. The fire engulfed the car and, according to the lawsuit, burned Dr. Awan “beyond recognition.” It went on to explain that the Model S door handles are activated when the key fob is detected within range. Since there is no other way to open its doors, the lawsuit alleges that there is “an unreasonably dangerous fire risk.”


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