U.S. agency still 'gathering facts' on Texas Tesla crash

FILE PHOTO: The logo of car manufacturer Tesla is seen at a branch office in Bern, Switzerland October 28, 2020. REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said on Thursday the federal investigators are still gathering "information" in a probe of Saturday's fatal Tesla Inc crash in Texas in which local police said no one was in the driver's seat.

"We are following this very closely," Buttigieg told reporters at an event in Washington, saying the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) special crash investigation team "is still gathering facts and information" and is in touch with Tesla and police.

There is growing scrutiny over Tesla's semi-automated driving system following recent accidents and as it is preparing to launch its updated "full self-driving" software to more customers. NHTSA has opened 28 crashes into Tesla crashes to date, with four pending.

Police, NHTSA and the National Transportation Safety Board are investigating the crash in which two men died after their Tesla Model S, which was believed to be operating without anyone in the driver's seat, crashed into a tree on Saturday night north of Houston.

Tesla Chief Executive Elon Musk said company checks showed the Autopilot driver assistance system in Saturday's crash was not engaged.

Autopilot is a driver assistance system that handles some driving tasks and allows drivers to take their hands off the steering wheel at times, but Tesla says its features "require active driver supervision and do not make the vehicle autonomous."

Buttigieg said it was "an important time to stress" that automated driver assistance systems "continue to depend on the expectation that an attentive driver is behind the wheel.

U.S. magazine Consumer Reports, however, said its engineers were able to operate a Tesla vehicle without anyone in the driver's seat, and the system failed to send out a warning or indicate that the driver's seat was empty.

Over several trips across half-mile closed test track, a Tesla Model Y automatically steered along painted lane lines, the magazine said.

"In our evaluation, the system not only failed to make sure the driver was paying attention, but it also couldn't tell if there was a driver there at all," said Jake Fisher, senior director of Consumer Reports' auto testing.

"Tesla is falling behind other automakers like GM and Ford that, on models with advanced driver assist systems, use technology to make sure the driver is looking at the road."

Tesla did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment.

Separately on Thursday, Democratic Senators Richard Blumenthal and Ed Markey sent a letter asking NHTSA the agency to thoroughly investigate the Texas accident and produce a report outlining corrective actions to prevent future accidents.

Markey in 2019 cited videos of Tesla drivers who appeared to fall asleep behind the wheel while using Autopilot, and others in which drivers said they could defeat safeguards by sticking a banana or water bottle in the steering wheel to make it appear they were in control of the vehicle.

Tesla told Markey in a letter in 2020 its revisions to steering wheel monitoring meant that in most situations “a limp hand on the wheel from a sleepy driver will not work, nor will the coarse hand pressure of a person with impaired motor controls, such as a drunk driver."

NHTSA said Thursday it would review the senators' letter.

(Reporting by Akanksha Rana in Bengaluru and David Shepardson in Washington; Editing by Sriraj Kalluvila and Marguerita Choy)

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