Tesla Crash Spurs Probes After Two Die With ‘No One’ Driving

A pair of U.S. agencies have launched probes into the fatal and fiery crash of a Tesla Inc. Model S in Houston late Saturday that killed two people -- with no one behind the wheel.

The two male occupants, who have yet to be identified, were in the car: one in the front passenger seat and the other in a rear seat, according to local authorities. Both died in the crash that occurred late Saturday. The vehicle traveled a short distance, smashed into a tree and erupted into flames that took hours to extinguish.

The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board announced on Monday that it planned to join the investigation. Its officials will focus on “the vehicle’s operation and the post-crash fire,” the NTSB said in a posting on Twitter.

A team is expected to arrive in the area later Monday, the NTSB said. The agency had earlier said it had no plans to investigate.

The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration is also reviewing the accident and said in a statement that it’s “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 crash occurred at 11:25 p.m. Saturday in the Carlton Woods Subdivision in Houston. It was not immediately known if Autopilot, Tesla’s name for its driver-assistance feature, was engaged at the time of the crash, which occurred in a suburban neighborhood. Autopilot is primarily designed for highway driving. Tesla, which collects large quantities of data about its cars, did not respond to a request for comment.

“We’re drawing up search warrants for the vehicle,” said Harris County Precinct 4 Constable Mark Herman in a telephone interview Monday. “The car traveled a very short distance.”

The fatalities come at a critical time for Tesla, which has rolled out a feature it markets as “Full Self Driving” to scores of customers that are beta testing the technology in advance of a wider release. Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk recently tweeted that improvements are being made to the vision stack each week, and the company has plans to roll out a subscription service. Tesla reports first-quarter earnings next week.

Lithium-based batteries are highly flammable and difficult to extinguish. Once damaged, they can also reignite hours or days after being doused, the safety board has warned. The NTSB has warned about the dangers of battery fires from electric cars for years.

In January, the NTSB issued a special report on the dangers, saying manufacturers have left emergency responders vulnerable to battery blazes. The NTSB issued four recommendations, calling on federal regulators to help create standards to reduce the risks of fires and seeking better guidance from carmakers for firefighters.

The tactics for fighting battery fires is different from blazes involving other chemicals such as gasoline. While most chemical fires are snuffed using foam or powder substances, the tactic for batteries is to douse them with water until they cool off. It took more than 30,000 gallons of water to extinguish the Tesla blaze in Houston.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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