Feds investigating fatal Tesla crash where no one was in the driver seat

Technology

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has dispatched a special team to investigate the fatal Tesla crash in Texas, in which two people were killed after their vehicle crashed into a tree with no one behind the steering wheel.

A spokesperson from the NHTSA said the agency is coordinating with local law enforcement to learn more about the incident and will “take appropriate steps” when investigators have gathered more information. The spokesperson did not respond to a follow-up question about whether that would include a recall of Tesla’s Autopilot feature that was likely involved in the crash.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which investigates civilian transportation crashes, was also dispatching a team of investigators. The agency said it was sending two officials to Texas to examine the crash, with a particular focus on “the vehicle’s operation and the post-crash fire.”

Local authorities have yet to identify the two men, aged 59 and 69, who were killed in the crash. The duration of the fire, which lasted four hours and required 30,000 gallons of water to extinguish, is said to have made identification difficult.

The incident took place at 9PM local time in Spring, Texas. According to KHOU in Houston, investigators are “100 percent certain” that no one was in the driver’s seat at the time of the crash. Minutes before the crash, the wives of the men were said to overhear them talking about the Autopilot feature of the vehicle, which was a 2019 Tesla Model S, according to The New York Times.

This is the latest crash involving a Tesla to be scrutinized by federal investigators. The NHTSA has sent teams to inspect similar crashes involving Teslas that took place in recent weeks in Houston, Lansing, and Detroit.

This is also the latest incident to involve a driver using Autopilot crashing into a stationary object. There have been at least two fatal crashes in which a Tesla owner has smashed into a stopped vehicle, and Tesla has yet to address it in any meaningful way.

This crash is unique, though, in so far as it involves a vehicle with no one in the driver’s seat. In the past, Tesla has warned its customers that Autopilot is not an autonomous driving system and still requires constant attention to the road while in use. That said, the company’s marketing has been shown to be needlessly confusing, including the use of brand names like “Autopilot” and “Full Self-Driving” that implies the vehicle is more capable than it actually is.

Tesla didn’t respond to a request for comment, likely because the company has dissolved its press office and typically doesn’t respond to media requests anymore.

In a tweet criticizing The Wall Street Journal’s story of the crash, Tesla CEO Elon Musk claimed that “data logs recovered so far” indicate that Autopilot was not engaged, nor had the vehicle owner purchased the company’s “Full Self-Driving” option that may have allowed the use of Autopilot on local roads.