Almost 3,500 people a day die in motor vehicle accidents around the world. The ones that seem to get the most publicity are the relative handful of fatal Tesla crashes. The most recent example came in Baarn, Netherlands, when a Tesla Model S went off the road Wednesday and crashed into a tree, killing the driver.
Reports indicate the battery or parts of the battery flew free and caught fire, creating problems for emergency responders. There is no indication initially as to whether this Tesla had Autopilot, and if so, if it was switched on.
The story took on a life of its own because of some unusual attributes: At least one battery fire that wouldn’t go out, uncertainty over Autopilot, and Europe’s apparent disinterest in automakers getting too involved too early in the accident investigation. For US editors rushing to get early stories out, the path to culling information was to point Google Translate at the first stories appearing in Dutch. Google Translate is something of a work in progress if you’re looking for nuances.
This much appears clear: The car involved was a Tesla Model S. The accident happened 25 miles east of Amsterdam along a straight roadway lined with trees. The driver died instantly in the crash. The front of the car was badly damaged, components were strewn about, and the rear was relatively intact.
Firefighters took several hours to extricate the victim’s body. Early stories, especially on bad translations of early Dutch news stories, had Dutch firefighters afraid of the car, fearful of being electrocuted, and not knowing how to proceed.
The later and more likely story is that fire-and-rescue teams have ready access to diagrams and cutaways of EVs, along with information on how to verify that a battery has been disabled. Fire department spokesman Ronald Boer told Reuters, “We know a lot about electric cars, but there are always going to be cases where something unexpected happens. There are going to be educational moments.”
As for the battery, there was this uncertainty, or confusion: Parts of the battery were reportedly thrown from the vehicle, which if correct suggests a violent accident because the battery helps form part of the car’s backbone. With the only occupant dead and uncertainty about possible contact with high voltage, rescuers waited several hours to extricate the victim.
Some reports have Tesla engineers being summoned from the Dutch offices several hours away to advise authorities on safely dealing with the car. Tesla issued a statement: “Technical personnel are on the scene, and we are working with the authorities to establish the facts of the incident and offer our full cooperation. … We will share our findings as soon as possible following the investigation.”
Some Dutch news reports and commentators said the investigating body and regulatory agency RDW wanted Tesla’s help, but said RDW should have control of the accident scene, and that Tesla would or should have fuller access to the car once the initial investigation was completed.
Separate from battery-related issues, Tesla recorded its first Autopilot fatality back on May 7 when Joshua Brown, 40, of Ohio struck a truck turning into his path on a divided highway in central Florida. Authorities reported finding a portable DVD player at the crash site; it’s not clear if it was being used at the time of the accident.
After that crash, Tesla issued this statement: “Neither autopilot nor the driver noticed the white side of the tractor-trailer against a brightly lit sky, so the brake was not applied …. Autopilot is getting better all the time, but it is not perfect and still requires the driver to remain alert.”