Two people were killed in a fiery Tesla crash without anyone driving

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Texas authorities say two people died when a Tesla crashed into a tree without anyone in the driver’s seat and caught fire, Houston television station KPRC 2 reported

The cause of the crash, which took place around 9 p.m. local time in Spring, Texas (near Houston), is under investigation. According to KHOU in Houston, emergency responders had to use 30,000 gallons of water for four hours to extinguish the fire as the Tesla’s battery ignited over and over. Authorities tried to contact Tesla for advice on how to put out the fire; it is not clear whether they have received a response.

Preliminary reports suggest the car drove at high speed and did not make a turn and then drove off the road into a tree. According to KHOU, one of the killed men was in the front passenger seat of the car, the other in the back seat. Harris County Precinct 4 Constable Mark Herman told KPRC that “no one was driving” the 2019 all-electric Tesla at the time of the crash. It is not yet clear whether the car had activated the steering assistance system Autopilot.

Tesla did not respond to a request for comment on Sunday. The company has closed its news agency and usually does not respond to inquiries from the media.

At least there are 23 Autopilot related crashes is being investigated by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, but this appears to be the first fatal accident where no driver was behind the wheel. Tesla has previously warned its customers that Autopilot is not an autonomous driving system and still requires constant attention on the road while in use. However, the company’s cars only monitor that attention with a sensor that measures torque in the steering wheel, leaving room for abuse – something the National Transportation Safety Board admonished Tesla last year.

Tesla has previously provided guidance for first responders who encounter fires with their EV batteries. Battery re-ignition can be a problem because unlike gas vehicles, an EV battery still has energy stored even after the fire is out. Tesla’s guidance suggests it’s better to let the fire burn out than to keep trying to put it out.

In the past, Tesla CEO Elon Musk has rejected calls from Tesla engineers to add better safety controls when a vehicle is in Autopilot, such as eye-tracking cameras or additional sensors on the steering wheel, saying the technology is “ineffective.” He said in 2018 that Tesla would regularly release safety data about its Autopilot feature, but added that “negative” press coverage could persuade customers not to use it.

“When a serious accident does occur, it is almost always, in fact maybe always, the case that it is an experienced user, and the issue is more of a complacency issue,” Musk said in a May 2018 interview with investors. “They just get too used to it. That is usually a bigger problem. It’s no lack of knowledge of what Autopilot can do. Her [drivers] think they know more about Autopilot than they know. “