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Fiery Tesla Crash Being Investigated by Feds

April 21, 2021 by Tom Ramstack
Tesla headquarters in Palo Alto. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

Two federal agencies are investigating the fatal crash of a Tesla car on Saturday near Houston that burned for four hours as firefighters poured about 32,000 gallons of water on it.

Local police said they are certain no one was behind the wheel when the self-driving vehicle missed a curve and slammed into a tree.

The burned bodies of two men were found inside the car, one in the back seat and the other in the front passenger seat.

The fire that erupted from the car’s large lithium-ion battery left only the charred and melted remnant of a vehicle to be towed away.

Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration are trying to determine whether the car was operating on Tesla’s autopilot driver-assist system or its full self-driving capability.

The autopilot system can control the vehicle but still needs a driver behind the wheel to correct for possible deviations from acceptable roadway navigation.

The newer full self-driving capability is supposed to be close to a fully autonomous, or driverless, means of operating a vehicle. Tesla still recommends that drivers monitor operation of the vehicles.

In January, the NHTSA announced it was expanding its program for automated vehicles, from a pilot program to an initiative intended to move the technology to wider implementation on the nation’s roadways.

Until January, nine states and nine companies participated in the pilot program. Now, 52 companies, governments and associations are participating.

Officials from the federal agencies say they are interested in the Spring, Texas, crash to determine what it could mean for the future of driverless technology and electric vehicles.

“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,” a NHTSA statement said.

On Sunday, Tesla Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk announced a new safety report from the company showed its vehicles using autopilot were nearly 10 times less likely to crash than vehicles driven only by humans.

Nevertheless, the company is under close scrutiny by federal regulators after several high-profile accidents.

They included cars hitting highway barriers, stopped emergency vehicles and tractor trailers that crossed in front of them.

The NTSB has recommended that Tesla be required to limit the roads on which driverless technology can be used safely and to install systems that monitor whether drivers are paying attention.

Investigators are trying to get warrants to seize information about the latest crash. They have not said whether part of the information would be seized at Tesla’s Mountain View, Calif., headquarters.

Portions of the investigation focus on whether the Tesla technology recognized the hazard created by a bend in the road and tree ahead. The collision occurred at a high rate of speed, police said.

The crash also is raising questions about the similarities to a May 7, 2016 Tesla Model S crash in Williston, Fla., in which the car’s technology failed to recognize an 18-wheel tractor trailer crossing in front of it.

The car drove straight into the tractor trailer without applying its brakes, killing the driver.

Tesla explained in a statement after an investigation that “neither autopilot nor the driver noticed the white side of the tractor-trailer against a brightly lit sky, so the brake was not applied.” 

Shares of Tesla Inc. fell 3.6% on the first day of trading after the wreck on Saturday. Otherwise, the company’s stock value is up 370% in the past year.

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