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The remains of a Tesla vehicle are seen after it crashed in The Woodlands, Texas, April 17, 2021.

The fiery crash of a Tesla car with no-one behind the wheel is drawing scrutiny from two US agencies that could bring about new regulation of electronic systems that take on some driving tasks.

Key points:

  • The search warrants will help determine whether the Tesla’s Autopilot partially automated system was in use when the crash occurred
  • Tesla has said in the past that drivers using Autopilot and the company’s “full self-driving capability” system must be ready to intervene at any time
  • The company’s stock fell 3.4 per cent in the face of publicity about the crash

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the National Transportation Safety board (NTSB) said they would send teams to investigate the Saturday night crash on a residential road in Texas that killed two men in a Tesla Model S.

Local authorities said one man was found in the passenger seat, while another was in the back.

They are issuing search warrants in the probe to determine whether the Tesla’s Autopilot partially automated system was in use.

Autopilot can keep a car centred in its lane, keep a distance from cars in front of it, and can even change lanes automatically in some circumstances.

In the past, NHTSA, which has authority to regulate automakers and seek recalls for defective vehicles, has taken a hands-off approach to regulating partial and fully automated systems for fear of hindering development of promising new features.

But since March, the agency has stepped up inquiries into Teslas, dispatching teams to three crashes.

It has investigated 28 Tesla crashes in the past few years, but thus far has relied on voluntary safety compliance from auto and tech companies.

“With a new administration in place, we’re reviewing regulations around autonomous vehicles,” the agency said last month.

Investigators ‘100 per cent sure’ no-one was driving car

Agency critics say regulations — especially of Tesla — are long overdue as the automated systems keep creeping toward being fully autonomous.

At present, though, there are no specific regulations and no fully self-driving systems available for sale to consumers in the US.

Tesla, which has disbanded its media relations office, did not respond to requests for comment Monday. Its stock fell 3.4 per cent in the face of publicity about the crash.

The company has had serious problems with Autopilot, which has been involved in several fatal crashes where it failed to stop for tractor-trailers crossing in front of it, stationary emergency vehicles, or a highway barrier.

The NTSB, which can only issue recommendations, previously asked that NHTSA and Tesla limit the system to roads on which it can safely operate, and that Tesla install a more robust system to monitor drivers to make sure they’re paying attention.

Neither Tesla nor the agency took action, drawing criticism.

Investigators in Saturday’s accident haven’t determined how fast the Tesla was travelling at the time of the crash, but Harris County Precinct Four Constable Mark Herman said it was a high speed, adding he was “100 per cent sure” no-one was driving the vehicle.

The company has said in the past that drivers using Autopilot and the company’s “full self-driving capability” system must be ready to intervene at any time, and that neither system can drive the cars itself.

On Sunday, Tesla CEO Elon Musk tweeted that the company had released a safety report from the first quarter showing that Tesla with Autopilot has nearly a 10 times lower chance of crashing than the average vehicle with a human piloting it.

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