Two men riding in a Tesla were killed this weekend when the car careened into a tree in Texas and burst into flames.
The wives of the two unidentified friends, ages 59 and 69, overheard them discussing the Autopilot feature of the 2019 Model S Tesla as they left together in the car Saturday night, said a local constable.
One man was in the front passenger seat, the other was sitting behind him in the backseat, Harris County Precinct 4 Constable Mark Herman told Houston KPRC-TV Channel 2. Police found no evidence that anyone was in the driver’s seat when the car went off the road and crashed into a tree; however, the investigation is ongoing.
No one was driving the fully electric Tesla when the accident occurred, Herman said.
Herman said investigators believe the car was traveling at a high rate of speed when it missed a curve and slammed into the tree in a residential neighborhood.
The blaze took four hours and some 32,000 gallons of water to extinguish because the Tesla’s batteries kept reigniting, KPRC reported. Fire officials had to call the automaker for advice on how to fully extinguish the fire.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has launched 27 investigations — with 23 ongoing — into crashes that may have involved Tesla’s autopilot feature. The latest in Texas may be the first time no one was in the driver’s seat during a crash.
Although Tesla warns drivers not to take their hands off the steering wheel when the car is operating on Autopilot, drivers have been known to fall asleep at the wheel, read or text, or simply stop paying attention to the road when using the feature.
“Autopilot is intended for use with a fully attentive driver, who has their hands on the wheel and is prepared to take over at any time.” The “currently enabled features do not make the vehicle autonomous,” the Tesla website stated. Yet a video featured on the site shows a car driving with the driver’s hands in his lap. A message at the start of the video notes that the “person in the driver’s seat is only there for legal reasons. He is not doing anything. The car is driving itself.”
Tesla could not immediately be reached for comment. The company eliminated its public relations department last year.