The fiery Tesla crash in Spring brought at least two federal agencies to investigate. Officials are still trying to determine how the driverless car sped down a street before it slammed into a tree. It took firefighters several hours to extinguish the fire, because the battery kept reigniting.
Two investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) are working with local authorities to determine the cause. The investigators planned to examine both the car’s operation and the reasons local firefighters had such trouble extinguishing the blaze.
Nobody was Driving
Harris County Precinct 4 Constable Mark Herman said investigators “have no doubt” that no one was in the driver’s seat of the Tesla when it traveled at a high rate of speed along a cul de sac in Spring.
Some witnesses reported seeing an explosion after the car slammed into a tree.
The Woodlands Fire Department poured more than 23,000 gallons of water on the fire which would not quit. The 2019 Model S’s lithium-ion battery kept reigniting.
The charred remains of the two men – aged 59 and 69 – were found in the front passenger seat and the rear passenger seat.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration issued a statement announcing it would launch a special crash investigation team: “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.”
Constable Herman said officials continue to investigate the crash. They spoke with witnesses and are also likely to subpoena crash records. The constable said he expects information from Tesla to aid in the investigation. All Tesla vehicles have an almost constant flow of information connecting them to cloud-based reporting systems.
The Houston Chronicle reported that as long as the Tesla’s 12-volt battery, its onboard computer and its cellular connection are intact, it would likely provide real-time information to the moment of the crash.
Tesla did not immediately respond to a comment request from the Chronicle. Its founder, Elon Musk, said on Twitter after the crash that “data logs recovered so far showed autopilot was not enabled” in the death car.
Mr. Musk also said: “Moreover, standard autopilot would require lane lines to turn on, which this street did not have.”
Nonetheless, one likely focus of the investigation will be whether the vehicle’s driver assist technology played a role in the crash. Tesla promotes an autopilot feature in many of its vehicles. The carmaker has some of the most comprehensive self-driving systems of any cars on the market.
Fifth Tesla Crash NTSB Investigates
The Texas crash is the fifth fatal Tesla incident to draw the attention of NTSB since 2016. Then, a man was killed in Williston, Fla., after a commercial truck turned into the path of his Tesla ride while it was set on autopilot. Investigators concluded that the cause of that first fatal Tesla crash was a combination of the truck turning into the street and “the car driver’s inattention due to over-reliance on vehicle automation, which resulted in the car driver’s lack of reaction to the presence of the truck.”
Following the 2016 Florida wreck, NTSB sent six automakers with self-driving systems a directive to “develop applications to more effectively sense the driver’s level of engagement and alert the driver when engagement is lacking while automated vehicle control systems are in use.”
Tesla’s response was the only one of the six deemed unacceptable by NTSB. The agency awaits further discussions between Tesla and federal officials. An outstanding also continues between the NTSB and Tesla over details related to “operating limitations, the foreseeability of driver misuse, and the ability to operate the vehicles outside the intended operational design” regarding a 2018 crash in Mountain View, Calif.
An SUV-style Model X Tesla swerved from an HOV lane in that wreck, hitting a guardrail near an exit. The crash breached the troublesome battery, but good-samaritan passersby helped the driver escape the X before it ignited and burst into flames.
Assorted industry groups, such as the National Fire Prevention Association, offer training and advisories on handling battery fires. Tesla also maintains a website with information for fire officials.