U.S. safety agency sends team to investigate Tesla crash

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) said on Wednesday that it was sending a team to investigate the crash of a Tesla Inc vehicle last week in Utah that occurred while the car was in Autopilot mode.

A Tesla Model S is seen after it hit the back of a mechanic truck from the Unified Fire Authority in this traffic collision in South Jordan, Utah, U.S., May 11, 2018. South Jordan Police Department/Handout via REUTERS

It is at least the second Tesla crash linked to the semi-autonomous Autopilot system being investigated by the government agency since January.

Police in Utah said a Tesla report of the vehicle showed that the driver of the Model S enabled Autopilot about 1 minute and 22 seconds before the crash. The report said she took her hands off the steering wheel “within two seconds” of engaging the system and then did not touch the steering wheel for the next 80 seconds, until the crash happened.

The police said in a statement that the driver, a 28-year-old woman, “admitted that she was looking at her phone prior to the collision.”

Tesla advises drivers that they must keep their hands on the steering wheel and pay attention at all times while using Autopilot, which the company says does not make the vehicle “autonomous.”

The NHTSA said it “launched its special crash investigations team to gather information on the South Jordan, Utah, crash,” and said it “will take appropriate action based on its review.”

Tesla did not immediately comment.

The police said the Tesla Model S during that day’s trip registered more than a dozen instances of the driver’s hands being off the steering wheel. On two such occasions, the driver had her hands off the wheel for more than one minute each time and her hands came back on only after a visual alert, the Tesla report said.

The driver was traveling at 60 miles (97 km) per hour when the Model S smashed into a fire truck stopped at a red light about 20 miles south of Salt Lake City on Friday night, according to police. The Tesla driver suffered a broken ankle.

Police issued the driver a traffic citation for failure to keep proper lookout.

NHTSA is also investigating a fatal crash in March that involved a Tesla Model X using Autopilot. It is also probing the January crash of a Tesla vehicle apparently traveling in Autopilot that struck a fire truck. Both incidents were in California.

Last week, NHTSA also said it would probe a May 8 Tesla accident in Florida that killed two teenagers and injured another. Autopilot was not thought to play a part.

NHTSA can order a recall if it finds a defect poses an unreasonable risk to safety.

The National Transportation Safety Board, a separate government agency that looks into accidents and makes safety recommendations, has said it is not investigating the Utah crash.

The NTSB is investigating the other three Tesla incidents being looked at by NHTSA, as well as an August 2017 Tesla battery fire in California, in which an owner ran the vehicle into his garage.

Swiss prosecutors said this week that they were looking into the fatal crash of a Tesla in southern Switzerland.

Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Rosalba O’Brien and Leslie Adler