The driver and passenger seats were both occupied in a Tesla Model S that crashed into a tree outside of Houston on April 17th, killing both occupants, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.
The crash made news when local investigators on the scene initially reported that neither body recovered from the Telsa was behind the wheel. Mark Herman, a constable from Harris County Precinct 4, told KHOU that one of the men killed was in the front passenger seat of the car, while the other was in the back seat.
“They are 100 percent certain that no one was in the driver seat driving that vehicle at the time of impact. They are positive,” Herman told KHOU.
Federal investigators quickly swooped in to determine the accuracy of the claim. NTSB, which investigates civilian transportation crashes, sent two officials to Texas to examine the crash, with a particular focus on “the vehicle’s operation and the post-crash fire.” Tesla also sent representatives from the company to inspect the crash.
Almost immediately, the claim that no one was behind the wheel seemed to fall apart. Tesla CEO Elon Musk claimed that “data logs recovered so far” indicated that Autopilot was not engaged, nor had the vehicle owner purchased the company’s “Full Self-Driving” option that may have allowed the use of Autopilot on local roads. And the company’s own inspectors determined that the steering wheel was “deformed,” leading them to conclude there was someone in the driver’s seat at the time of the crash.
Also, security camera footage from the vehicle owner’s home captured him entering the driver’s side door, while his companion got in on the passenger side. And NTSB crash investigators tested whether Tesla’s Autopilot would work on the part of the road, concluding that adaptive cruise control could be engaged but not Tesla’s Autosteer feature.
Now, the agency has released a new preliminary report further refuting the claim that the driver seat was unoccupied at the time of the crash. According to the document: “With the assistance of the [event data recorder] module manufacturer, the NTSB Recorders Laboratory repaired and downloaded the fire-damaged EDR. Data from the module indicate that both the driver and the passenger seats were occupied, and that the seat belts were buckled when the EDR recorded the crash. The data also indicate that the driver was applying the accelerator in the time leading up to the crash; application of the accelerator pedal was found to be as high as 98.8 percent. The highest speed recorded by the EDR in the 5 seconds leading up to the crash was 67 mph.”
NTSB said that its investigation was still in the preliminary stage and that “no conclusions about how the crash happened should be drawn from the information in this investigative update.”
The fears of a driverless Tesla crash are certainly justified. Tesla owners have shown that Autopilot can be used on roads without lane markings, and Consumer Reports recently conducted a test proving that Tesla’s vehicles can easily be tricked into thinking there is someone behind the wheel, even when there’s not.
Tesla finds itself under more scrutiny than ever, with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in the middle of an investigation into a dozen incidents in which Teslas with Autopilot have crashed into emergency vehicles. And two prominent Senate Democrats have urged federal regulators to take “corrective actions” against Tesla to prevent further misuse of the company’s advanced driver assist feature.