Tech

US traffic safety agency launches probe of fatal Tesla Model S crash

Key Points
  • The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is launching yet another Tesla probe after a 2016 Model S ran a red light in Los Angeles, killing two occupants in a 2006 Honda Civic. 
  • Los Angeles Police Department said it was not immediately known whether the Tesla's Autopilot, advance driver assistance system, was engaged at the time of the crash.
  • NHTSA, which is part of the Department of Transportation, has the power to issue mandatory vehicle recalls if it deems a car design, or parts and systems within a vehicle, unsafe. 
Tesla Model S is displayed inside of the new Tesla flagship facility on August 10, 2016 in San Francisco, California.
Justin Sullivan | Getty Images

The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said, after market close on New Year's Eve, that it plans a probe of a fatal Tesla crash that occurred on Sunday in Los Angeles.

The Los Angeles Police Department confirmed that a motorist in a black 2016 Model S ran a red light and struck a 2006 Honda Civic on Sunday, killing the two people in that car. The two occupants inside the Tesla were taken to a nearby hospital with non-life threatening injuries.

It was not immediately known whether Tesla Autopilot — the company's advanced driver assistance systems — may have been engaged at the time of the fatal crash, and if so, whether it might have caused or exacerbated the incident.

NHTSA, which is part of the Department of Transportation, has the power to issue mandatory vehicle recalls if it deems them necessary, typically when an automaker has failed to determine and fix dangerous flaws in their vehicles or parts, systems and components within.

The agency said, in a statement e-mailed to CNBC on Tuesday: "NHTSA's special crash investigation (SCI) program will initiate a crash scene and vehicle inspection of the 12/29/2019 crash of a Tesla Model S after it collided with another car in Los Angeles, California."

Tesla did not reply to a request for comment.

That same NHTSA program had previously initiated probes of 13 incidents or accidents involving Tesla electric vehicles with Autopilot possibly in use. Results of eleven of those investigations were still pending as of Tuesday.

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NHTSA often works in tandem with the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), an independent federal agency that investigates every civil aviation accident in the U.S., and the most significant accidents involving vehicles on the ground or in the water.

The NTSB said on Monday that it is not investigating the latest, fatal Tesla Model S crash. The agency does have several investigations underway looking into advanced driving systems including Tesla Autopilot.

The NTSB clashed with Tesla CEO Elon Musk after a March 23, 2018 crash killed Apple engineer Walter Huang. He had been driving a 2017 Tesla Model X with Tesla's Autopilot systems engaged. The results of that federal probe are still pending, but expected to be published in the first quarter of 2020.

In April 2019, at a company Autonomy Day presentation, Musk promised fans and shareholders:

"We expect to be feature complete in self driving this year. We expect to be confident enough from our standpoint to say that we think people don't need to touch the wheel or look out the window somewhere probably around second quarter of next year. And we expect to get regulatory approval, at least in some jurisdictions, toward the end of next year."

Tesla did not announce the completion of a "feature-complete self-driving system" in 2019.


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