By Rebecca Elliott 

U.S. safety officials are investigating a fatal weekend crash involving a Tesla Inc. vehicle, adding to a series of probes into incidents involving the electric-vehicle maker.

Local authorities believe the Tesla Model S sedan was operating without anyone in the driver's seat when it crashed into a tree Saturday night north of Houston, killing two men.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board both said Monday that they were investigating the crash. NHTSA has enforcement authority over auto makers, while the NTSB issues safety recommendations.

"We are actively engaged with local law enforcement and Tesla to learn more about the details of the crash and will take appropriate steps when we have more information," NHTSA said in a statement.

The NTSB said on Twitter that it was sending two people to investigate the crash, adding that its probe would focus on the vehicle's operation and the fire that local officials said engulfed the vehicle for roughly four hours.

Authorities on Sunday were still investigating whether the vehicle's advanced driver-assistance system, known as Autopilot, was engaged at the time of the crash.

Tesla didn't immediately respond to a request for comment. The company has previously said that Autopilot made Tesla vehicles safer than others.

Tesla tells drivers using the feature to pay attention to the road and be prepared to take control of the vehicle.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D., Conn.), who sits on the Commerce, Science and Transportation committee, on Monday called for "comprehensive oversight" to prevent deaths tied to advanced driver-assistance systems.

"Using Tesla's driverless system -- or any other -- shouldn't be a death risk," he tweeted. "Advancements in driving technology must first & foremost be safe." The senator has previously expressed concern about the safety of advanced driver-assistance technology.

NHTSA has launched more than two dozen investigations into crashes involving Tesla vehicles, several of them in recent months. Two March crashes in Michigan drew federal probes, as did a February crash in Texas. None of those accidents was fatal.

Mark Herman, the Harris County constable over Precinct 4, where the accident happened, has said he believes no one was behind the wheel at the time of the crash. One of the men who died in the accident was found in the front passenger's seat and the other was in the back seat, he said.

Mr. Herman added that he didn't believe a driver could have moved into the front passenger's seat or back seat after the crash to try to escape the vehicle. He said the two individuals in the car were aged 69 years and 59 years.

"Never say never, but I can tell you that's not the direction our investigation is going," he said.

Mr. Herman added that his staff had been in touch with NHTSA and the NTSB about the crash.

The scrutiny comes as Tesla is working through its largest-ever recall. The company agreed earlier this year to recall roughly 135,000 vehicles over touch-screen failures.

Write to Rebecca Elliott at rebecca.elliott@wsj.com

 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

April 19, 2021 14:08 ET (18:08 GMT)

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