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Scrutiny of Tesla crash a sign that regulation may be coming

ap photo This 2019 file photo shows a sign bearing the company logo outside a Tesla store in Cherry Creek Mall in Denver.

DETROIT — The fiery crash of a Tesla near Houston with no one behind the wheel is drawing scrutiny from two federal agencies that could bring new regulation of electronic systems that take on some driving tasks.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the National Transportation Safety board said Monday they would send teams to investigate the Saturday night crash on a residential road that killed two men in a Tesla Model S.

Local authorities said one man was found in the passenger seat, while another was in the back. They’re issuing search warrants in the probe, which will determine whether the Tesla’s Autopilot partially automated system was in use. Autopilot can keep a car centered in its lane, keep a distance from cars in front of it, and can even change lanes automatically in some circumstances.

On Twitter Monday, Tesla CEO Elon Musk wrote that data logs “recovered so far” show Autopilot wasn’t turned on, and “Full Self-Driving” was not purchased for the vehicle. He didn’t answer reporters’ questions posed on Twitter.

In the past, NHTSA, which has authority to regulate automakers and seek recalls for defective vehicles, has taken a hands-off approach to regulating partial and fully automated systems for fear of hindering development of promising new features.

But since March, the agency has stepped up inquiries into Teslas, dispatching teams to three crashes. It has investigated 28 Tesla crashes in the past few years, but thus far has relied on voluntary safety compliance from auto and tech companies.

“With a new administration in place, we’re reviewing regulations around autonomous vehicles,” the agency said last month.

Agency critics say regulations — especially of Tesla — are long overdue as the automated systems keep creeping toward being fully autonomous. At present, though, there are no specific regulations and no fully self-driving systems available for sale to consumers in the U.S.

At issue is whether Musk has over-sold the capability of his systems by using the name Autopilot or telling customers that “Full Self-Driving” will be available this year.

“Elon’s been totally irresponsible,” said Alain Kornhauser, faculty chair of autonomous vehicle engineering at Princeton University. Musk, he said, has sold the dream that the cars can drive themselves even though in the fine print Tesla says they’re not ready. “It’s not a game. This is serious stuff.”

Tesla, which has disbanded its media relations office, also did not respond to requests for comment Monday. Its stock fell 3.4% in the face of publicity about the crash.

In December, before former President Donald Trump left office, NHTSA sought public comment on regulations. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, whose department included NHTSA, said the proposal would address safety.

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