Federal safety officials and the Texas police are investigating a fatal crash of a Tesla vehicle that had no one behind the wheel, the authorities said Tuesday, as the company comes under heightened scrutiny over its automatic steering and braking system.
The National Transportation Safety Board sent two investigators to Texas on Monday to focus on the vehicle’s operation and a fire that followed the crash on Saturday, said Keith Holloway, a spokesman. The police in Precinct 4 of Harris County, Texas, are also investigating, according to Constable Mark Herman.
In addition, the police told Reuters that they had executed a search warrant for Tesla to secure data about the crash, after Elon Musk, Tesla’s chief executive, wrote on Twitter on Monday that recovered data logs showed the vehicle had not enabled Autopilot.
Mr. Musk has said that Autopilot, Tesla’s driver assistance feature, makes its vehicles safer than others. But federal regulators are calling that claim into question as they investigate Saturday’s crash and more than 20 other recent accidents in which drivers were, or may have been, using the system. Tesla vehicles are not self-driving — they require “active driver supervision,” the company says on its website — but Autopilot can steer, accelerate and brake automatically within a lane.
In the crash on Saturday night, which occurred north of Houston, physical evidence from the scene and interviews with witnesses led officials to believe that neither of the men were driving, according to Constable Herman.
The vehicle, a 2019 Model S, was moving at a “high rate of speed” around a curve when it veered off the road and hit a tree, Constable Herman said. He also said that it had taken the authorities four hours to put out the fire. The N.T.S.B. said last year in a report that batteries used in electric vehicles can pose safety risks to emergency responders.
Two men, 59 and 69 years old, were killed in the crash. One was in the front passenger seat and one in the rear seat, officials said. “It is very early in the investigation,” said Mr. Holloway, the N.T.S.B. spokesman.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is also looking into a February crash near Houston in which a Tesla ran into a stopped police vehicle on a highway. It was not clear whether the driver was using Autopilot. In another incident in February in Detroit, a Tesla drove beneath a tractor-trailer that was crossing the road, seriously injuring the driver and a passenger. Officials have not said whether the driver had turned on Autopilot.
Mr. Musk, Tesla’s chief executive, last week highlighted a safety report from the company, writing on Twitter that “Tesla with Autopilot engaged now approaching 10 times lower chance of accident than average vehicle.”
Tesla did not respond to a request for comment.