Texas authorities plan to issue search warrants to Tesla on Tuesday for information that could shed light on a fatal crash over the weekend—after Elon Musk tried to tweet his way out of questions about the cause.
After authorities near Houston announced that they believed no one had been driving during the Saturday crash, which killed two men, Tesla stock fell by nearly 4 percent—giving Musk’s net worth of nearly $180 billion a haircut of about $5.6 billion.
In response to a Twitter user, Musk on Monday argued the company’s system could not be to blame. “Data logs recovered so far show Autopilot was not enabled,” Musk wrote, and “this car did not purchase FSD,” referring to the company’s “full self-driving” feature.
But as of Tuesday morning, Tesla had not handed over that data to law-enforcement officials investigating the accident. Mark Herman, the constable for Harris County’s Precinct 4, where the crash took place, told Reuters that the tweet was the first the department had heard from the company.
“If he is tweeting that out, if he has already pulled the data, he hasn’t told us that,” said Herman, who did not immediately respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment. “We will eagerly wait for that data.”
According to local officials, two men in their late 50s and 60s were found dead in a 2019 Tesla Model S near The Woodlands township in Harris County, Texas, late Saturday night. When fire crews arrived, the driver’s seat was empty, suggesting the car may have been using Tesla’s Autopilot driver assistance system.
“There was a body in there in the right front seat and there was a body in the back,” Fire Chief Palmer Buck of The Woodlands Township Fire Department told the Daily Beast.
Herman told Reuters the vehicle had been coursing along a curve at high speeds, before running off the road late Saturday. Buck told the Daily Beast the first calls reported a fire at approximately 9:25 p.m., in a wooded, undeveloped lot beside two small lakes. When officials arrived at the scene, they found the vehicle “heavily engulfed in flames,” Buck said.
In a statement, Herman said the fire took four hours to extinguish. But Buck disputed the account, telling the Houston Chronicle that “rumors grew way out of control.” The cooling down process to reach what firefighters call “final extinguishment” took multiple hours. But the inferno itself spanned only a few minutes.
“It wasn’t, as has been described in some articles, ‘four hours of raging fire,’” Buck said. “It’s just that we kept water on the car as the batteries were cooling, to keep the chain reaction or cascade reaction from doing more damage.”
According to local police, the two men’s wives heard them discussing the Autopilot system when they left their homes earlier that day. The search warrants, slated to be served Tuesday on Tesla Inc., aim to retrieve the car’s data to determine whether the system was engaged.
This isn’t the first time Musk has meddled in a Tesla investigation. The National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating Saturday’s accident, previously removed Tesla as a party from an earlier inquiry into a 2018 crash, after the company publicized details of the probe without permission.
The accident is the 28th Tesla crash to be investigated by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a federal vehicle safety regulator.
Electric cars are not necessarily more dangerous than their gas-powered peers, but Chief Investigator Mitchell Weston at the Harris County Fire Marshal's Office told The Daily Beast that high-speed impacts like car accidents can lead to a problem known as “thermal runaway”–a condition that occurs when the heat generated by a battery exceeds the amount of heat spread to the surrounding parts, creating a domino effect that spreads to nearby batteries.
“There’s this cascade or chain reaction because the matrix of the lithium-ion battery is broken,” Buck said. “So there’s this chain reaction that's occurring that then moves from—for lack of a better term—cell to cell in the battery matrix and just continues to catch the lithium on fire. The only way to stop that is with copious amounts of water to cool that off to stop that reaction.”
Meanwhile, Tesla was also facing some bad publicity overseas. In China on Monday, a woman was detained at the Shanghai Auto Show for climbing onto a Tesla sedan and yelling about brake malfunctions in the company’s cars. In video on Chinese social media, reported by the South China Morning Post, the woman can be heard shouting “Tesla Brake malfunctioned!” while wearing a white T-shirt screened with the Tesla logo and the Chinese characters for “brake malfunction.”