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April 19, 2021 1:00 PM, EDT

NHTSA, NTSB Probe Fatal Tesla Crash With No Driver

A sign bearing the Tesla logo outside a store in Cherry Creek Mall in Denver.A sign bearing the Tesla outside a store in Cherry Creek Mall in Denver. (David Zalubowski/Associated Press)

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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 April 19 they will send investigators to Spring, Texas, to look into the fiery April 17 crash. Two men were killed.

Investigators are “100% sure” that no one was driving the 2019 Tesla Model S that ran off a residential road, hit a tree and burst into flames, killing two men inside, Harris County Precinct 4 Constable Mark Herman said.

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

One of the men was found in the front passenger seat of the badly burned car, and the other was in the back seat, Herman told The Associated Press April 19.

“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 April 19.

The NTSB is sending two investigators who will focus on the vehicle's operation and the fire, spokesman Keith Holloway said.

Investigators are in the process of 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, Calif., electric vehicle maker. Also, investigators are working with NHTSA and the National Transportation Safety Board, both of which investigate serious auto crashes.

Tesla has had serious problems with its Autopilot partially automated driving system, which has been involved in several fatal crashes where 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 system to monitor drivers to make sure they’re paying attention. Neither Tesla nor the agency took action.

A message was left April 19 seeking comment from Tesla, which did away with its media relations department. The company has said in the past that drivers using Autopilot must be ready to intervene at any time. It says the “Full Self-Driving Capability” system can’t drive itself and also must be continually monitored by drivers.

Investigators haven’t determined how fast the Tesla was driving at the time of the crash, but Herman said it was a high speed. He would not say if there was 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 detect hands. But critics say Tesla’s system is easy to fool.

KHOU-TV reported that the two men found in the car were ages 59 and 69.

NHTSA has sent investigators to 27 Tesla crashes in the past few years.

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