How to Escape Your Car If the Electronic Door Release Fails
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How to Escape Your Car If the Electronic Door Release Fails

May 28, 2023

A recent Tesla fire shows that drivers of some modern vehicles should learn where emergency door releases are located, before they need them

A photo that’s been making the rounds on social media shows a Tesla Model Y ablaze on a street in North Vancouver, B.C., earlier this week. The car’s owner told a local CTV News station that the Model Y suddenly lost power and filled with smoke, and that its electrically operated doors wouldn’t open, trapping him inside. He told the news outlet that in his panic, he could not figure out how to operate the emergency door release. Vancouver firefighters are currently investigating the incident.

Doors that require some extra effort to open when a vehicle loses power are becoming more common. Instead of grabbing onto a manual lever to open the car door, drivers and passengers in some cars now must depress an electronic button, or "electric door" handle or release, that signals an electric motor to unlatch it.

Automakers who use these systems told CR that such systems promise to save weight and add extra features such as automatically unlocking during a crash. But if electric door releases fail because the car loses power, or for some other reason, drivers may need to use a manual emergency release—and these may not be easy for drivers to find or operate.

Last year, an attorney representing the owner of a Tesla Model S Plaid that caught fire told CR that the vehicle owner had to force his way out of the car because its doors would not open. Four years ago, the 75-year-old owner of a 2006 Cadillac XLR was trapped inside of his vehicle for 14 hours after its battery died, leaving the electronic door releases inoperable. He could have immediately released himself had he known the location of the manual door release.

“While it’s rare, in certain types of car crashes, the interior electronic door latch may not operate. So if you have a car without a conventional handle, you need to learn how to operate the emergency release,” says Jake Fisher, senior director of auto testing at Consumer Reports. “Automakers should make it easy and obvious how to exit the vehicle in an emergency, but unfortunately that’s not always the case. Your owner’s manual will tell you where to find the mechanical lever and how to use it. Give it a try. An actual emergency is not the time to figure it out.”

Other vehicles—including the Audi E-Tron, Chevrolet Corvette, Ford Mustang Mach-E, Lexus NX, and the discontinued Lincoln Continental—also make use of electronic door releases. They also all have some sort of manual release mechanism that may not be immediately apparent.

For example, the driver of the Tesla that caught fire in Vancouver could have used a manual door release lever located immediately in front of the electronic door release button. The image below from a Tesla Model Y owner’s manual shows where the manual door release lever is located and how to use it.

Tesla did not respond to CR’s questions for this story.

Photo: Tesla Photo: Tesla

Photo: John Powers/Consumer Reports Photo: John Powers/Consumer Reports

All modern cars have child safety door locks that, when activated, prevent the rear doors from being opened from inside the vehicle. They’re designed to keep kids from opening the rear doors, but occupants may also end up stuck in the back seat. (Your car’s owner’s manual will tell you how to disengage these locks if you want occupants to be able to open the rear seats from inside the vehicle—they’re usually engaged and disengaged via a toggle in a slot on the inside of the car door or door jamb.)

According to the safety advocacy group Kids and Cars, if the rear doors don’t open from inside the car, rear seat passengers should use the front doors to exit a vehicle in an emergency. If that’s not possible, they should turn on the vehicle’s hazard lights, honk the horn, or otherwise try to make themselves visible to passers-by.

Some vehicles with electronic interior door releases—including the Tesla Model Y and Model 3—do not have a manual rear door release. Others have more complex ones: On a Tesla Model X with nonfunctioning powered rear “falcon” doors, you must first remove a speaker grille before pulling on a release cable.

Many auto supply stores sell spring-loaded “escape tools” that can smash a car’s window from inside to give occupants another way of exiting in an emergency.

But beware: another wrinkle of modern technology may render some of these tools useless. Strong, laminated glass can keep occupants from being ejected from a vehicle in a crash, but laminated glass is harder to break than traditional tempered glass.

In 2019, AAA tested six escape tools on vehicles with laminated glass, and found none of them were able to break it. The group recommends looking at the labels printed on the corners of the glass on your car’s windows, sunroof, and windshield to determine what kind of glass they are made of. In an emergency, the tempered glass should be easiest to break.

Keith Barry

Keith Barry has been an auto reporter at Consumer Reports since 2018. He focuses on safety, technology, and the environmental impact of cars. Previously, he led home and appliance coverage at Reviewed; reported on cars for USA Today, Wired, and Car & Driver; and wrote for other publications as well. Keith earned a master’s degree in public health from Tufts University. Follow him on Twitter @itskeithbarry.

How to Escape Your Car If the Electronic Door Release FailsHow to Escape Your Car If the Electronic Door Release Fails