No one behind the wheel in fatal Tesla crash, Texas authorities say

Two U.S. federal agencies are sending teams to investigate the fatal crash of a Tesla vehicle near Houston, Texas, in which local authorities say no one was behind the wheel.

Two men died when their Tesla crashed into a tree and burst into flames near Houston on Saturday

The remains of a Tesla vehicle are seen after a fatal crash that killed two men near Houston, Texas, on April 17, 2021. (Scott J. Engle/Reuters)

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

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), both of which investigate serious auto accidents, said Monday they will send investigators to Spring, Texas, where two men were killed in the fiery crash Saturday night.

According to Harris County Precinct Four Constable Mark Herman, investigators are "100 per cent sure" that no one was driving the Tesla Model S that missed a curve on a residential road, hit a tree and burst into flames, killing the two passengers. KHOU-TV reported that the car was a 2019 Tesla Model S, and the two men found in the car were aged 59 and 69.

But authorities are 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.

WATCH | Deadly crash may have involved driverless Tesla:

Authorities investigate deadly Tesla crash with nobody in driver's seat

CBC News

2 months ago
Two men died after their Tesla MODEL S crashed into a tree and burst into flames in The Woodlands, Texas, on April 17. One man was discovered in the passenger seat, and the other in the back, leading authorities to investigate whether the car was in the fully self-driving mode that Tesla has been promoting ahead of a wider release of its upgrade from semi-automated driving. 0:31

In the accident outside Houston, 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 Monday.

"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.

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, but said local law enforcement was working with NHTSA and NTSB.

Tesla Autopilot problems not new

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.

A message was left Monday morning 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 driver-monitoring system, which detects force from hands on the wheel. If it doesn't detect that force, it will issue warnings and eventually shut the car down. 

The interior of a Tesla Model S is shown in Autopilot mode in San Francisco, Calif., on April 7, 2016. (Alexandria Sage/Reuters)

Fire fed by lithium-ion battery

Herman said the car continued driving about 100 feet after running off the road, when it hit a tree and immediately caught fire.

Firefighters used at least 120,000 litres of water to extinguish the flames fed by the car's lithium-ion battery, he said.

Firefighters at the scene contacted Tesla for advice on how to extinguish the blaze and were told to just let it burn out, Herman said.

On Sunday, Tesla CEO Elon Musk tweeted that the company had released a safety report from the first quarter showing that Tesla with Autopilot has nearly a 10 times lower chance of crashing than the average vehicle with a human piloting it.

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.

Musk later questioned some of the reporting about the crash on Twitter.

Shares of Tesla Inc. fell 3.6 per cent, more than the broader markets, to $712.95 in afternoon trading Monday. That decline follows enormous gains for Tesla, shares of which are up 370 per cent in the past 12 months.