On Tuesday evening, a 2014 Tesla S model caught fire in Fort Lauderdale, Florida after slamming into a concrete wall, killing the driver and front-seat passenger, and injuring the backseat passenger.
Following this fatal crash, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) opened an investigation into the accident, marking the agency’s fourth active probe into Tesla’s electric vehicles. While the area is known for numerous crashes, police reports say that the car’s speed was a factor in the accident.
“We have not yet been able to learn the vehicle identification number, which has prevented us from determining whether there is any log data,” Tesla said in a statement. “However, had autopilot been engaged, it would have limited the vehicle’s speed to 35 mph or less on this street, which is inconsistent with eyewitness statements and the damage to the vehicle.”
According to the NTSB, the investigation will “primarily focus on emergency response in relation to the electric vehicle battery fire, including fire department activities and towing operations.”
“NTSB has a long history of investigating emerging transportation technologies, such as lithium ion battery fires in commercial aviation,” NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt said. “The goal of these investigations is to understand the impact of these emerging transportation technologies when they are part of a transportation accident.”
Despite Tesla receiving heat as of late for many of its safety features, the vehicle involved in this accident received a high safety rating in 2013.
It has yet to be revealed whether the Model S’ semi-autonomous autopilot feature was engaged at the time of the accident. The feature caps the vehicle’s speed at 5 mph above the local speed limit on residential roads.
In 2013, the Model S received a higher safety rating from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) than any car the agency had previously tested.
Following another fatal accident in March that involved the car’s battery bursting into flames, Tesla reported that the batteries in its vehicles are designed to decrease the rate fire spreads, leaving enough time for occupants to exit the vehicle.
A rocky history
As of late, there has been much contention between the NTSB and Tesla.
After a Tesla vehicle slammed into a tractor-trailer in 2016, killing the driver, the agency opened an investigation into the accident. It found that Tesla wasn’t at fault, instead saying the driver didn’t follow the company’s warnings to stay in control of the vehicle at all times.
In late March of this year, the NTSB opened another investigation in yet another fatal Tesla crash in Mountain View, California, after a driver crashed into a highway barrier and the car burst into flames. The agency doesn’t typically look into these sorts of accidents, but it did so because of Tesla’s much-scrutinized autopilot feature.
To make matters worse following the March incident, Tesla and the NTSB were at odds after Tesla released vetted information about the crash while the investigation was still open.
Due to the information leak, the NTSB removed Tesla from the investigation; losing party status ended Tesla’s ability to share technical assistance with the NTSB. The agency defended their decision to remove Tesla, citing the company’s decision to deliberately violate procedure by prematurely releasing information.
Tesla, however, went after the NTSB, saying the board was “more concerned with press headlines than actually promoting safety.” Tesla accused the NTSB of violating its own rules, while trying to prevent the automaker from releasing all available information.
What will the future hold?
The NTSB will be sending a team of four to Fort Lauderdale to investigate the accident, and the agency does not believe the semi-autonomous autopilot feature will be part of this investigation. Tesla plans to fully comply with the investigation and stands behind its vehicle and safety features.
“Our thoughts are with the families and friends affected by this tragedy,” Tesla said in a statement. “We are working to establish the facts of the incident and offer our full cooperation to local authorities.”