US opens special probe into fatal Tesla crash

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -U.S. auto safety regulators are opening a special crash investigation into a fatal accident in California involving a 2018 Tesla Model 3 suspected of relying on advanced driver assistance systems, the government agency said on Tuesday.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is probing the July 5 crash in South Lake Tahoe killed the 17-year-old driver of a 2013 Subaru Impreza after a head-on collision with the Tesla Model 3 and fatally injured a three-month-old passenger in the Tesla who died several days later, the California Highway Patrol said.

Since 2016, the U.S. auto safety regulator has opened more than three dozen Tesla special crash investigations in cases where systems such as Autopilot were suspected of being used, with 22 crash deaths reported through Tuesday.

Autopilot is a feature intended to steer, accelerate and brake cars automatically within their lane, while enhanced Autopilot can assist in changing lanes on highways. Tesla, which did not respond to requests for comment, says the system requires active human supervision.

The Subaru was traveling at an estimated 55 miles per hour (88.51 kilometers per hour) while the Tesla was at 45 mph when they collided, a police report said. The Tesla driver suffered serious injuries and two other Tesla passengers suffered moderate injuries.

“There are no charges pending at this time. Vehicle and car seat inspections are currently being done,” a California Highway Patrol spokesperson said.

This is the first new special crash investigation involving Tesla and the suspected use of driver assistance systems since two were opened in March, including one into the February fatal crash in California involving a 2014 Tesla Model S and a fire truck in Contra Costa County, California.

A local California fire department said a Tesla struck one of its fire trucks and that the Tesla driver was pronounced dead at the scene.

The other investigation in March involves a 2022 Tesla Model Y that struck and seriously injured a 17-year-old student who got off a school bus in North Carolina.

NHTSA typically opens more than 100 “special” crash investigations annually into emerging technologies and other potential auto safety issues that have, for instance, previously helped to develop safety rules on air bags.

Those are separate from defect investigations opened by the agency to determine if a safety recall is warranted.

In June, NHTSA upgraded to an engineering analysis its defect probe into 830,000 Tesla vehicles with driver assistance system Autopilot and crashes with parked emergency vehicles, including fire trucks.

NHTSA said earlier this month it was seeking updated responses and current data from Tesla in the Autopilot probe by Wednesday.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Doina Chiacu, Chizu Nomiyama and Deepa Babington)