Police investigating fatal Tesla crash believe no one was driving

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A weekend accident near Houston claimed two lives

A preliminary investigation of a fatal weekend crash of a Tesla in Texas suggests that no one was behind the wheel when the vehicle slammed into a tree at a high rate of speed. 

Two men in the car were killed. Police said one occupant was in the front passenger seat. The other was in the backseat. Harris County Precinct 4 Constable Mark Herman told The Wall Street Journal that investigators are “99.9%” sure that the car had no driver when it crashed. Tesla equips its vehicles with an “Autopilot” feature but stresses in its owner’s manual that it is designed to assist the driver and is not intended to pilot the car with no one behind the wheel. 

“Autopilot and full self-driving capability are intended for use with a fully attentive driver, who has their hands on the wheel and is prepared to take over at any moment,” Tesla says in a warning on its website.  

Texas State Police and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) are continuing their investigation. Police say it took hours to extinguish the fiery crash, which required 32,000 gallons of water. They say the Tesla’s battery reignited several times.

Other Tesla crashes

Neither the NHTSA nor Tesla has made public statements concerning the crash. It’s just the latest in a series of accidents over the years in which it is believed the driver of a Tesla was depending too heavily on the Autopilot feature, but this is the first time that authorities believe no one was driving.

In most cases, authorities have determined driver error caused the accidents. The NHTSA investigated a 2016 crash in Florida in which a vehicle slammed into a truck. The investigation determined that the driver of the Tesla was at fault in the accident because he had ignored Tesla's warnings that the driver must pay attention at all times when the car is in Autopilot mode.

The NHTSA's Office of Defects Investigation (ODI) noted that Tesla had upgraded the Autopilot system with a "strike-out" feature that disables Autopilot if the driver does not respond to visual instrument panel cues.

As we reported last month, the NHTSA is currently investigating a Tesla crash in Detroit in which two people were critically injured. In its investigation of previous Tesla Autopilot-related crashes, the National Transportation and Safety Board (NTSB) cited the shortcomings of new automotive technologies.

NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt has reminded drivers there are no vehicles available to consumers that can safely drive themselves.

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