US regulators probe potentially driverless Tesla crash as Musk denies Autopilot use

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Two US transportation regulators said Monday they will investigate a fatal car crash involving a Tesla that apparently had no one behind the wheel. The vehicle was speeding when it hit a tree late Saturday night in Spring, Texas, near Houston. It caught fire, destroying the car entirely and killing two men, police said.

Mark Herman, Harris County Constable Precinct 4, said evidence including witness statements clearly indicated there was nobody in the driver’s seat of the Model S when it crashed into a tree, killing two people, on Saturday night. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) said it “immediately launched a Special Crash Investigation team to investigate the crash.” “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,” the agency said.

Also read| Two dead as Tesla car believed to be driverless crashes in Texas The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said on Twitter it had dispatched two investigators to the scene, who “will focus on the vehicle’s operation and the post-crash fire. NTSB investigators will arrive in the area later this afternoon.”

As of Sunday, local investigators had not determined whether the driver’s side airbag deployed, or if the vehicle’s driver assistance system was deployed at the time of the accident. The circumstances of the accident have provoked numerous reactions on social media, re-launching the debate on Tesla’s existing semi-autonomous capabilities, such as the “Autopilot” software that allows the car to park on its own or navigate on the highway. People can also buy a more expensive version called “FSD,” for “full self-driving,” even though the driver is not supposed to let go of the steering wheel.

The crash is the 28th Telsa accident to be investigated by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which regulates vehicle safety. It is also being probed by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which removed Tesla as a party to an earlier investigation into a fatal crash in 2018 after the company made public details of the probe without authorisation. In Saturday’s accident, the 2019 Tesla Model S was traveling at high-speed near Houston when it failed to negotiate a curve and went off the road, crashing into a tree and bursting into flames, Herman said.

Authorities found the bodies of two men in the car, one in the front passenger seat and the owner of the car in the backseat. “We have witness statements from people that said they left to test drive the vehicle without a driver and to show the friend how it can drive itself,” Herman said. Tesla’s Autopilot is a driver assistance system that handles some driving tasks and allows drivers to take their hands off the steering wheel at times, but Tesla says its features “require active driver supervision and do not make the vehicle autonomous.”

Tesla boss Musk rejected the idea that the vehicle’s semi-automated driving software was to blame: “Data logs recovered so far show Autopilot was not enabled & this car did not purchase FSD,” in a reference to Full Self-Driving, Tesla’s separate beta semi-automated driver assistance system that still requires driver supervision. Musk added that “standard Autopilot would require lane lines to turn on, which this street did not have,” referring to road markers that need to be captured by a vehicle’s cameras to enable autopilot. Tesla has access to operational and diagnostic data delivered to its servers at “regular intervals” from the car, which has been impounded by police.

It is unclear whether investigators will be able to retrieve data directly from the event data recorder in the severely burned vehicle. Tesla warns that driver assistance systems Autopilot and Full Self-Driving Capability do not make the vehicles autonomous, and that active supervision is still required. Musk, however, regularly praises advances made by his company in self-driving technology.

Just hours before the crash, Musk had tweeted: “Tesla with Autopilot engaged now approaching 10 times lower chance of accident than average vehicle.”

Tesla’s Autopilot system, which was operating in at least three Tesla vehicles involved in fatal US crashes since 2016, has come under increasing scrutiny.

(With inputs from agencies)