New NTSB Report on Deadly ‘Driverless’ Tesla Crash Claims Texas Investigators Are Wrong
Spring, TX – The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) released its preliminary investigation today into a deadly Tesla crash that occurred last month in Texas.
The high-profile crash happened shortly after 9 p.m. on Saturday April 17, in the Carlton Woods subdivision in the city of Spring.
A 2019 Tesla Model S, occupied by 59-year-old William Varner (owner) and friend 69-year-old Everette Talbot, died after the vehicle was unable to negotiate a turn, left the road way, traveled over a drainage culvert and hit a manhole, and then crashed into a tree before bursting into flames.
Shortly following the crash, Harris County Precinct 4 Constable Mark Herman indicated emergency responders found the charred remains of one male victim in the passenger seat and the other upright in the rear passenger seat.
“They feel very confident just with the positioning of the bodies after the impact that there was no one driving that vehicle,” Herman told KHOU-TV.
In fact, a family member of one of the victims told local outlet KPRC 2 he watched the owner back the car down the driveway, exit, and then sit in the rear passenger seat, while his friend remained seated in the front passenger seat as the car sped away.
However, the NTSB’s preliminary report contradicts these accounts.
“Footage from the owner’s home security camera shows the owner entering the car’s driver’s seat and the passenger entering the front passenger seat,” the NTSB stated. “The car leaves and travels about 550 feet before departing the road on a curve.”
The NTSB has not yet released the video footage, but confirmed the sedan was, in fact, equipped with Autopilot, Tesla’s advanced driver assistance system.
In the wake of the crash, many people including some U.S. lawmakers again raised questions about the safety of Tesla’s automated driving systems, which the company says should not be engaged without a driver behind the wheel and ready to take over if need be.
Tesla’s billionaire CEO Elon Musk pushed back on the criticism claiming data collected from the vehicle indicated Autopilot was not engaged at the time of the incident.
The NTSB’s preliminary report does not directly address this.
However, according to the Agency, in order for Autopilot to function properly, the Traffic Aware Cruise Control (an adaptive cruise control system that provides longitudinal control as well as acceleration and deceleration) must be engaged in conjunction with Tesla’s Autosteer (lane-keeping assist) system.
The NTSB said the Autosteer function “was not available on that part of the road” because it “did not have lines to define the travel lanes.”
Fire Damage Destroys Onboard Recorder
The NTSB said retrieving data from the vehicle’s onboard recorder will be difficult due to the extent of fire damage.
Firefighters reportedly battled the flames for more than four hours after the Tesla’s high-voltage lithium-ion battery case ignited.
According to multiple reports, authorities even phoned Tesla for instructions on how best to douse the flames before eventually giving up and allowing the fire to burn out.
“The fire destroyed the car, including the onboard storage device inside the infotainment console,” the NTSB report states. “The car’s restraint control module, which can record data associated with vehicle speed, belt status, acceleration, and airbag deployment, was recovered but also sustained fire damage.”
It has been taken to the NTSB’s recorder laboratory for “evaluation.”
In addition to the NTSB’s investigation, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is looking into the crash as well as the Harris County Texas Precinct 4 Constable’s Office, which the Agency noted is “conducting a separate, parallel investigation.”
“All aspects of the crash remain under investigation as the NTSB determines the probable cause, with the intent of issuing safety recommendations to prevent similar crashes,” the report concludes.