The National Transportation Safety Board has dispatched investigators to examine a fatal crash last week in California of a Tesla Inc. TSLA -8.22% electric vehicle and determine whether its semi-automated driving system was engaged.
The NTSB, obliged increasingly to address questions surrounding the safety of driverless-car technologies, said Tuesday it was conducting a “field investigation” of the Friday crash near Mountain View, Calif., that resulted in the vehicle later catching fire.
“Unclear if automated control system was active at time of crash,” the NTSB said in a social-media posting, in a reference to Tesla’s Autopilot feature. “Issues examined include: post-crash fire, steps to make vehicle safe for removal from scene.”
A man was killed in the accident, after his Tesla traveling south on Highway 101 collided with a barrier and was struck by two other vehicles, according to the California Highway Patrol.
Tesla’s stock plunged more than 8% in Tuesday trading.
“We have been deeply saddened by this accident, and we have offered our full cooperation to the authorities as we work to establish the facts of the incident,” Tesla said in a statement.
The NTSB emphasized that the status of the Autopilot system at the time of the crash wasn’t the main focus of its probe.
“This investigation is not focused on the automation, rather, it is focused on understanding the post-crash fire and the steps taken to make the vehicle safe for removal/transport from the scene,” an NTSB spokesman said in an email message. “We are working with Tesla to determine if automation was in use at the time of the accident, but the focus of this field investigation is on the other two points.”
Still, the NTSB has found itself increasingly scrutinizing emerging automated- driving technologies, adding to typical investigations the agency conducts of crashes involving aircraft, trains and buses, and other incidents.
The probe of the Tesla crash follows the NTSB’s investigation of an Uber Technologies Inc. self-driving car that hit and killed a woman in Tempe, Ariz, last week. Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey late Monday barred Uber from further testing of self-driving vehicles in the state while authorities probe the crash. He called the incident an “unquestionable failure to comply” with expectations that companies testing autonomous-driving technology place a priority on safety.
The NTSB’s first significant foray into automated-vehicle technology came in response to the May 2016 fatal crash of another Tesla vehicle using Autopilot on a Florida highway. The agency eventually found Tesla shared blame for the crash, noting the semiautonomous system allowed a driver to go long periods without his hands on the wheel and ignore the company’s warnings. Officials also found Autopilot could be used on roads for which it wasn’t designed, and that a hands-on-the-wheel detection system was a poor substitute for measuring driver alertness.
Tesla has said it places a priority on safety and contends Autopilot enhances it. The Palo Alto., Calif., company said after the NTSB findings in the 2016 crash that it would continue to be clear with current and potential customers that Autopilot doesn’t render vehicles fully self-driving and that motorists must always remain attentive.
The NTSB also began recently investigating a Tesla vehicle that crashed in January into a firetruck near Culver City, Calif. The Tesla driver said the vehicle’s Autopilot system was engaged at the time of the crash, according to local firefighters. The car struck the stationary firetruck while traveling at 65 miles an hour, the firefighters said.
—Tim Higgins contributed to this article.
Write to Mike Spector at firstname.lastname@example.org
Appeared in the March 28, 2018, print edition as ‘Crash Prompts Probe Of Tesla’s ‘Autopilot’.’