A crash involving a Tesla Model S in Texas at the weekend killed two men, with neither apparently behind the wheel at the point of impact.
The vehicle hit a tree and burst into flames in Spring, just north of Houston, on the evening of Saturday, April 17. One of the vehicle’s occupants was discovered in the front passenger seat, while the other was in a back seat.
At the heart of the investigation is whether the vehicle was in Autopilot or FSD (Full Self-Driving) mode leading up to the crash, and whether one of the two occupants, aged 59 and 69, were possibly thrown — or moved — from the seat around the point of impact.
Harris County Constable Precinct 4 deputies said the Tesla vehicle was moving at high speed when it failed to negotiate a cul-de-sac turn, veered off the road, and hit the tree, with Sgt. Cinthya Umanzor saying there was “no one in the driver’s seat.”
Firefighters reportedly had a difficult time extinguishing the blaze, taking around four hours and using some 32,000 gallons of water. With the vehicle’s lithium-ion batteries continuing to burn, the emergency crew even called Tesla for advice on how to tackle the situation.
Local reporter Deven Clarke tweeted images from the crash scene.
Two men killed after Tesla that may have been in autonomous driving or self driving mode didn’t adhere to a curve, slammed into a tree then burst into flames in the Woodlands, officials say. Firefighters say they had to call Tesla to figure out how to oust the blaze. @KPRC2 pic.twitter.com/nmhDxKeTHT
— Deven Clarke (@KPRC2Deven) April 18, 2021
Tesla’s Autopilot feature has proved controversial for the California-based electric-car company, with critics claiming its very name can mislead some drivers into believing their vehicle is fully autonomous when Autopilot is in fact a driver-assist feature.
The recent beta release of the more advanced FSD feature has also raised concerns, with the new mode still requiring drivers to keep their eyes on the road and be ready to take over at any time.
On its website, Tesla cautions its customers, saying: “Current Autopilot features require active driver supervision and do not make the vehicle autonomous,” and also: “While using Autopilot, it is your responsibility to stay alert, keep your hands on the steering wheel at all times, and maintain control of your car.”
A built-in safety system means that a Tesla vehicle will issue alerts and eventually slow to a stop if it detects an absence of hands on the wheel, but some drivers have been using various methods to trick the system — behavior that’s been known to lead to crashes.
Police are now working to establish what led up to Saturday’s Tesla crash in Texas.