Tesla Crash Probe Finds Driver at Wheel, Muting Autopilot Worry

·4 min read

(Bloomberg) -- The Texas man who died last April when his Tesla slammed into a tree and burst into flames was behind the wheel and applying the accelerator in the moments before the impact, federal accident investigators said.

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The Model S reached 67 miles (107.83 kilometers) per hour before veering off a residential street and striking a tree, the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board said in an investigative update issued Thursday.

The preliminary findings effectively clear the vehicle’s controversial Autopilot system in the crash and put to rest initial reports from police that no one was driving the car. The body of the vehicle’s owner was found in the rear seat after the fire was extinguished, and those initial reports from police had led to speculation that Autopilot, which has been involved in dozens of other crashes, might have been engaged.

The NTSB cautioned that the report is preliminary and subject to change, and said “all aspects” of the crash remain under investigation, including Tesla’s automated driving systems. The agency’s tests found that the system’s auto-steering function wasn’t available on that portion of the road due to a lack of lane markings. Full Autopilot can’t be engaged without the steering function.

The owner and a passenger died in the high-speed crash in Spring, Texas, on April 17.

The report is a measure of good news for Tesla, whose Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk had called initial reports about the accident “completely false.” But the company remains under the spotlight after the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in August opened a formal investigation into the involvement of Tesla’s automation system in crashes into first-responder vehicles.

The Texas crash occurred a short distance from the home of anesthesiologist William Varner, 59, who wanted to take a friend, Everette Talbot, 69, on a test drive in his Model S, according to police and autopsy reports.

Both men had alcohol in their systems at the time of the crash, according to an autopsy report. Varner had 0.151g/100mL of ethanol in his blood after death, which is almost twice the legal limit of 0.08% in Texas. Talbot’s reading was about 0.075g.

The NTSB’s lab repaired a data recorder in the car that had been damaged by fire. It showed both the driver and passenger seats were occupied and the seat belts were buckled at the time of the crash.

It also showed that the accelerator pedal had been depressed as much as 98.8% of full power, according to the report.

In addition, the car’s steering wheel was deformed “due to an impact,” the NTSB said. Investigators didn’t speculate what caused the deformation, but it suggests that occurred when the driver’s body was flung forward as the car hit the tree.

Local police initially said that no one was driving the vehicle after Varner’s body was found in the back seat.

The NTSB appeared to rule out the use of Autopilot in a press release issued in May. Investigators using a similar Tesla vehicle in tests weren’t able to fully engage the system, they said in the release.

A home security camera also had showed Varner getting into the driver’s seat shortly before the crash. The car had traveled only about 550 feet (168 meters) from his driveway until it crashed, according to NTSB.

NTSB has investigated several other fatal Tesla accidents in which inattentive drivers allowed the vehicles’ advanced cruise-control system known as Autopilot to steer into other vehicles or obstructions. Even though Tesla calls the system “Autopilot,” the company warns that it isn’t capable of self-driving and drivers must monitor it.

The safety board also has probed multiple battery fires on vehicles made by Tesla and other manufacturers, warning in February that guidance to emergency responders was inadequate. NTSB opened another investigation into a Florida Tesla crash that killed two people after the car caught fire.

The car in Texas went off the residential street at a curve, rolling over a low curb, drainage culvert and raised manhole before coming to rest near the tree. The impact damaged the car’s lithium-ion battery, which erupted in flames that severely damaged the vehicle.

(Updates with investigative findings, Autopilot status from third paragraph.)

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