2 US agencies send teams to probe Tesla crash with no driver

by Jeremy

DETROIT — Two federal agencies are sending teams to investigate the fatal crash of a Tesla near Houston in which local authorities say no one was behind the wheel.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board said Monday they would send investigators to Spring, Texas, to investigate the fiery Saturday night crash. Two men who were in the Tesla were killed.

Harris County Precinct Four Constable Mark Herman said that investigators are “100% sure” that no one was driving the Tesla that missed a curve on a residential road, hit a tree, and burst into flames.


But they’re still trying to determine whether the electric car was operating on Tesla’s Autopilot driver-assist system or the company’s “Full Self-Driving Capability” system was in use.

Herman told The Associated Press Monday, one of the men was found in the front passenger seat of the badly burned car, and the other was in the back seat.

“We are actively engaged with local law enforcement and Tesla to learn more about the details of the crash and will take appropriate steps when we have more information,” NHTSA said Monday.

Spokesman Keith Holloway said that the NTSB is sending two investigators to focus on the vehicle’s operation and the fire.

Investigators are getting several search warrants seeking evidence in the crash, but Herman would not say if those warrants are directed at Tesla. He said he didn’t know if investigators had spoken with the Palo Alto, California, electric vehicle maker. Also, investigators are working with NHTSA and the NTSB to investigate serious auto crashes.

Tesla has had severe problems with its Autopilot partially automated driving system, involved in several fatal crashes. It didn’t spot tractor-trailers crossing in front of it, stopped emergency vehicles, or a highway barrier. The NTSB has recommended that NHTSA and Tesla limit the roads on which the system can safely operate and that Tesla install a more robust approach to monitoring drivers to ensure they’re paying attention. Neither Tesla nor the agency took action.

A message was left Monday morning seeking comment from Tesla, which has done away with its media relations department. The company has said that Autopilot drivers must be ready to intervene anytime. It tells the “Full Self-Driving Capability” system can’t drive itself and must be continually monitored by drivers.

Investigators haven’t determined how fast the Tesla drove at the crash, but Herman said it was a high speed. He would not say if there were evidence that anyone tampered with Tesla’s system to monitor the driver, which detects force from hands on the wheel. The system will issue warnings and eventually shut the car down if it doesn’t see indicators. But critics say Tesla’s system is easy to fool.

KHOU-TV reported that the car was a 2019 Tesla Model S, and the two men found in the vehicle were aged 59 and 69. Herman said the car went about 100 feet after running off the road, hit a tree, and immediately caught fire. He said firefighters used at least 32,000 gallons of water to extinguish the flames fed by the car’s lithium-ion battery. Herman noted that firefighters at the scene contacted Tesla for advice on extinguishing the blaze and were told just to let it burn out.

The Harris County crash is the 28th NHTSA sent investigators to during the past few years.

But Kelly Funkhouser, head of connected and automated vehicle testing for Consumer Reports, said Tesla’s numbers have been inaccurate in the past and are difficult to verify.

“You just have to take their word for it,” Funkhouser said, adding that Tesla doesn’t say how many times the system failed but didn’t crash or when a driver failed to take over.

Shares of Tesla Inc. fell 4%, more than the broader markets, in Monday afternoon trading. That decline follows enormous gains for Tesla, whose shares are up 370% in the past 12 months.

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