According to police, two passengers were killed in a Tesla Model S crash on Saturday in which no one was in the driver’s seat.
According to Constable Mark Herman, the head of the Harris County police precinct that responded to the crash in the Houston suburb of Spring, Texas, an individual in the front passenger seat and one in the back seat of the car were killed.
“I can tell you our investigators are certain no one was in the driver’s seat at the time of the crash,” he told CNN Monday.
However, Tesla CEO Elon Musk later tweeted that, based on “data logs recovered so far,” the “Autopilot” feature available on this car was not activated. He didn’t say anything about it.
He did not provide information of what the data logs did reveal, or whether they ran up to the moment of the accident.
He also mentioned that a more advanced self-driving feature known as Full Self-Driving Capability, or FSD, which is only available on a small number of Tesla vehicles, was not purchased with this vehicle.
“Moreover, regular Autopilot would entail the activation of lane lines, which this street lacked,” Musk wrote in his tweet.
Authorities did not immediately disclose the identities of the two accident victims, a 69-year-old man and a 59-year-old man. The Tesla Model S, a 2019 model, apparently went off the road after failing to negotiate a curve and colliding with some trees.
According to Herman, the accident is still being investigated, and the exact speed is unknown. However, evidence suggests the car was travelling at a “high rate of speed,” according to him.
Tesla Autopilot is designed to assist the driver by holding the vehicle in a traffic lane and slowing or halting the vehicle to avoid obstacles ahead.
Telsa’s website does warn that “new Autopilot features require active driver control and do not make the vehicle autonomous.” However, just hours before the Saturday night crash, Musk said that the Autopilot feature was substantially safer than human drivers on Twitter.
“Tesla with Autopilot engaged now approaching 10 times lower chance of an accident than the average vehicle,” he tweeted.
Musk was referring to company statistics that showed Teslas with Autopilot engaged were involved in only one accident for every 4.19 million miles driven in the first quarter of this year, compared to one collision for every 484,000 miles for human-operated vehicles, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
However, such miles-driven comparisons aren’t always accurate, because Autopilot users are more likely to use it on limited-access highways, where the risk of a crash is lower, while the NHTSA data includes all miles driven, including those on local streets with intersections.
Safety experts have criticized the Tesla Autopilot system for a variety of reasons, including the term “Autopilot,” which some critics claim leads owners to believe the car can drive itself.
In a study on a fatal crash involving a Tesla using Autopilot in 2018, the National Transportation Safety Board stated that the carmaker was not doing enough to ensure that drivers remained aware of their surroundings and ready to take control of the vehicle to prevent accidents.
“This tragic crash demonstrates the limitations of advanced driver assistance systems available to consumers today,” said NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt in a February 2020 report on the 2018 crash in Mountainview, California. “There is not a vehicle currently available to US consumers that is self-driving. Period. Every vehicle sold to US consumers still requires the driver to be actively engaged in the driving task, even when advanced driver assistance systems are activated.”
Tesla (TSLA), which usually avoids media questions, did not respond to a request for comment on the accident, other than Musk’s tweet. Tesla has previously defended the use of the Autopilot name, claiming that even with aeroplane autopilot systems, the pilot must remain alert and ready to take control in the event of an emergency.
The NTSB and NHTSA have already been contacted by Constable Herman’s department about the accident. He said that it has not yet made contact with Tesla.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) announced early Monday that a Special Accident Investigation team had been dispatched to the scene to investigate the crash. Later that day, the National Transportation Safety Board, which is best known for investigating plane accidents, announced that two investigators will be sent to Texas to conduct a safety inquiry into both the vehicle’s operations and the fire that followed the accident.
For the autopilot feature to work, the driver’s seatbelt must be buckled. It is also intended to alert the driver if they do not hold their hands on the steering wheel often enough.
According to Herman, the crash Saturday resulted in a fire that took four hours to put out, requiring 32,000 gallons of water.
Although gasoline-powered cars are more likely to catch fire in a collision than pure electric vehicles, the large battery that powers those vehicles can catch fire if damaged in a collision. EV batteries, on the other hand, take longer to fire than gasoline.