The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and the National Highway Transit Safety Administration (NHTSA) are currently probing a crash involving a Tesla that authorities say had its Autopilot engage at the time of the accident. The vehicle reportedly hit a tree on Saturday at 11:25 pm in a neighborhood called The Woodlands, about 30 miles north of Houston. The accident killed two people.
Previous encounters with regulators include the NHTSA’s mandated recall of 158,000 electric vehicles to fix an issue with faulty media control units. On the flip side, the NHTSA has previously ruled that reported cases of sudden unexpected acceleration were likely due to driver error. This may raise some doubts regarding whether driver error or a flaw in the vehicle caused the crash. Early results of the investigation indicate that it was likely speeding at the time that it ran off the road.
The crash caused it to burst into flames and local firefighters had to use more than 30,000 gallons of water to get it out because it kept reigniting. The firefighters reportedly had to call Tesla for information on how to get it extinguished.
The authorities announced plans to obtain a warrant to have Tesla hand over data related to the Autopilot onboard the 2019 Model S involved in the crash. Elon Musk tweeted his doubts that the vehicle actually had the Autopilot engaged and said the vehicle wasn’t loaded with the Full Self-Driving software, which includes features that the Autopilot doesn’t have.
Full Self-Driving (FSD) is still in its public beta phase and Tesla says that neither FSD nor Autopilot is capable of fully autonomous driving. It has kicked drivers out of the FSD beta program for failing to stay fully alert while using the software.
Besides Musk’s tweet, Tesla has not issued an official statement on the crash and is unlikely to. It doesn’t currently have a PR department and regards Musk’s tweets as official company communications even though his tweets are currently the subject of a lawsuit from an investor seeking to force Tesla to keep its mandatory commitment to retain a lawyer who can review tweets before they are published.
Tesla has already been through a few lawyers for this position, which may indicate a few behind-the-scenes personality clashes involving Musk. His past tweets have also been in the crosshairs of regulators like the FCC, which forced him to resign as the president of the company’s bord of directors.
Elon Musk has reportedly lost $5.6 billion due to a plummeting Tesla stock. The sell-off was sparked by this latest accident involving one of its vehicles. This drops him to third place in Bloomberg’s list of wealthiest people so soon after he briefly seized the top slot from his top aerospace rival, Blue Origin CEO Jeff Bezos.
Previous accidents involving the autopilot include one in which a 38-year-old driver of a Model X hit a concrete barrier while using Autopilot and a 40-year-old driver whose Model S’s Autopilot failed to stop when a tractor-trailer made a left turn in front of the vehicle. This most recent crash involved two unidentified men aged 59 and 69. The bottom line is that the Autopilot is nowhere near ready to handle driving a vehicle on its own and drivers should always remain alert while using it.