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Texas search warrant issued in crash of driverless Tesla

by The New York Times | April 21, 2021 at 2:03 a.m.

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.

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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 Saturday, said spokesman Keith Holloway. 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 Monday on Twitter that recovered data logs showed the vehicle had not enabled Autopilot.

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 Saturday night, which occurred north of Houston, evidence from the scene and interviews with witnesses led officials to believe that neither of the men were driving, according to 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, Herman said.

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 Holloway.

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.

Tesla did not respond to a request for comment.

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