It’s a 21st century riddle: A car crashes, killing both occupants — but not the driver.
That’s what happened over the weekend in Houston, where a Tesla Model S slammed into a tree and killed the two men inside. According to police, one had been sitting in the front passenger seat, the other in the back of the car.
While investigators have not said whether they believe Tesla’s Autopilot technology was steering, the men’s wives told local reporters the pair went out for a late-night drive Saturday drive after talking about the system.
Tesla Chief Executive Elon Musk pushed back on speculation but also asserted no conclusion, tweeting Monday that “Data logs recovered so far show Autopilot was not enabled.” The company has resisted sharing data logs for independent review without a legal order.
Following Musk’s tweet, a county police official told Reuters that the department would serve a warrant for the data.
Autopilot technically requires the human driver to pay full attention, but it’s easy to cheat the system, and the internet is rife videos of pranksters sitting in the back while a Tesla cruises down the highway with the driver seat empty.
It’s a state of affairs that leaves many auto safety experts and driverless technology advocates wondering just what it will take before regulators step in and put an end to the word games and rule-skirting that have allowed it to continue. Could the crash in Houston provide that impetus?
“I suspect there will be big fallout from this,” said Alain Kornhauser, head of the driverless car program at Princeton University.
Tesla’s Autopilot system has been involved in several fatal crashes since 2016, when a Florida man was decapitated as a Tesla on Autopilot drove him under the trailer of a semi truck. Less lethally, Teslas have slammed into the back of fire trucks, police cars and other vehicles stopped on highway lanes.
Yet little action has been taken by federal safety officials and none at all by the California Department of Motor Vehicles, which has allowed Tesla to test its autonomous technology on public roads without requiring that it conform to the rules that dozens of other autonomous tech companies are following.