Autopilot couldn’t have been engaged during fatal Tesla crash, NTSB says

Texas Tesla Crash.
The remains of a Tesla vehicle are seen after it crashed, killing two people, in The Woodlands, Texas, on April 17, 2021.

  • The NTSB on Monday released a preliminary investigation into a fatal Tesla crash in April.
  • The agency said its tests indicate Autopilot cannot be used on the road where the crash happened.
  • Local police initially said there was no driver at the wheel when the accident occurred.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The National Transportation Safety Board on Monday released preliminary findings from its investigation into a fatal Tesla crash in April, offering new details about the incident but leaving key questions unanswered.

The agency said security camera footage from the owner’s Houston-area residence showed him entering the driver’s seat of the 2019 Model S. The passenger entered the front passenger’s seat. Video then showed the car traveling roughly 550 feet before skipping over the curb and crashing into a tree.

Autosteer, a key feature of Tesla’s Autopilot driver-assistance system could not have been enabled on the stretch of road where the incident occurred, the agency said, confirming Tesla CEO Elon Musk’s assertions in the wake of the crash.

In tests, the NTSB said it was able to switch on Traffic-Aware Cruise Control – which can maintain speed and distance from other cars – but not Autosteer, the automatic steering feature that makes up the rest of Autopilot’s main capabilities.

The Texas incident attracted a large of media attention when local police said they believed nobody was driving the sedan when it barreled off the road and burst into flames. First responders found the victims’ bodies in the front passenger’s seat and the back seat of the car, according to police and the Harris County Fire Marshal’s Office.

But Tesla has disputed that initial characterization of the events. Musk tweeted that the car did not have Autopilot engaged and that the system can’t function on the street where the crash occurred because it does not have lane markings. A Tesla executive said on an April conference call that the company believes someone was driving the car when it crashed.

The NTSB’s investigation is still ongoing, and the agency said its report may be supplemented or corrected over time.

The crash and subsequent fire destroyed the car’s onboard storage device, the NTSB said. However, the car’s restraint-control module, which logs data about vehicle speed, acceleration, seatbelts, and airbags, was recovered and is being evaluated by investigators.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration also launched a probe into the crash but has not yet released any findings.

Tesla, which is cooperating with the investigation, did not immediately return a request for comment.

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Lawmakers demand answers in fatal Tesla crash after Elon Musk and executives offer conflicting details

Texas Tesla Crash.
The remains of a Tesla vehicle are seen after it crashed, killing two people, in The Woodlands, Texas, on April 17, 2021.

  • Lawmakers demanded answers Wednesday about a fatal Tesla crash after executives gave conflicting statements.
  • Elon Musk said autopilot wasn’t on, but a top Tesla exec said adaptive cruise control, an autopilot feature, was.
  • Rep. Kevin Brady and Sen. Richard Blumenthal criticized Tesla’s public statements about the crash.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Lawmakers slammed Tesla’s public response to a deadly crash involving one of its Model S vehicles that killed two men near Houston, Texas, earlier this month following conflicting statements from the company’s executives.

“Despite early claims by #Tesla #ElonMusk, autopilot WAS engaged in tragic crash in The Woodlands. We need answers,” Rep. Kevin Brady, a Texas Republican, tweeted Wednesday.

Earlier on Wednesday, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat from Connecticut, said he was “disappointed” that Musk weighed in publicly at all, given that two federal agencies still have ongoing investigations into the incident.

Tesla did not respond to a request for comment.

Local authorities said following the crash that neither of the bodies they recovered were in the driver’s seat, prompting questions about whether the vehicle’s “autopilot” system – a suite of AI-powered driver assistance features – was engaged when the vehicle crashed.

Two days after the crash, Tesla CEO Elon Musk tweeted that early data obtained from the Model S showed “autopilot was not enabled,” and he doubled down on those claims in Tesla’s earnings call Monday, contradicting local authorities.

But in that same call, Tesla vice president of vehicle engineering Lars Moravy said that the vehicle’s traffic-aware, or adaptive, cruise control – part of the autopilot system, according to Tesla’s Model S owner manual – was engaged during the crash.

“Our adaptive cruise control only engaged when the driver was buckled in above 5 miles per hour. And it only accelerated to 30 miles per hour with the distance before the car crashed,” Moravy said, adding that the feature also “disengaged the car slowly to complete to a stop when the driver’s seatbelt was unbuckled.”

Moravy also pushed back on Texas authorities’ statements that no one was driving the car when it crashed.

“Through further investigation of the vehicle and accident remains, we inspected the car with NTSB and NHTSA and the local police and were able to find that the steering wheel was indeed deformed,” he said, “leading to a likelihood that someone was in the driver’s seat at the time of the crash and all seatbelts post crash were found to be unbuckled.”

Despite misleading and unverified claims about the autopilot’s capabilities and possible safety advantages, the feature doesn’t make Tesla vehicles fully autonomous. At least three drivers have died while using Tesla’s Autopilot, and the National Transportation Safety Board has called for increased scrutiny of self-driving software.

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Texas fire marshal report confirms some details of fatal Tesla crash but leaves Autopilot questions unanswered

Texas Tesla Crash.
Tesla denies Autopilot’s involvement in the deadly wreck.

  • The Harris County Fire Marshal’s Office released details about the Tesla crash that occurred on April 17.
  • The report offers new details about the fatal wreck, which police said happened with nobody driving.
  • Authorities haven’t said if Autopilot played a role in the crash, but Tesla denies it was in operation.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Local officials have revealed new details about a violent Tesla crash that killed two people in Spring, Texas, on April 17.

An incident report from the Harris County Fire Marshal’s Office confirms that neither of the two occupants were in the driver’s seat when authorities arrived on the scene. Still, questions remain about whether or not Autopilot – Tesla’s suite of advanced driver-assistance features – was enabled at the time of the crash.

According to the report, the gray 2019 Model S “sustained a significant front-end collision” that damaged its battery, power distribution systems, or heat-management systems, causing the car to catch fire. Investigators found the vehicle in direct contact with the trunk of a large tree and with its hood, front doors, front body panels, A-pillars, and roof “completely destroyed.”

Investigators did not determine the initial ignition source but were able to conclude that the vehicle was not set ablaze intentionally. The car’s interior had extensive damage to most combustible materials and was littered with melted debris, they said.

Read more: One battery startup’s plan to thrive in the $528 billion electric vehicle market: skip China and rebuild the lithium supply chain on US soil

Fifty-nine-year-old William Varner and 69-year-old Everette Talbot were found dead inside the scorched car. Varner was found sitting in the left rear passenger’s seat leaning backward “with both arms rolled back in a pugilistic pose.” Talbot was found sitting in the front passenger’s seat leaning forward with his chin pressed against the dashboard.

The report is consistent with what Constable Mark Herman initially described to local media following the crash. He told KHOU that nobody was found in the driver’s seat and that investigators were confident that nobody was driving the car at the time of impact.

Tesla has disputed Herman’s account of events.

Elon Musk tweeted that the car had not engaged Autopilot, and Tesla vice president Lars Moravy said on a Monday conference call that the company believes someone was driving the car due to the seatbelts being unfastened and deformation in the steering wheel. The fire marshal’s report did not make any mention of what caused the crash.

Tesla did not respond to a request for comment about the report.

Both the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board have announced probes into the incident that are ongoing.

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Tesla said it’s likely somebody was in the driver’s seat during a deadly Model S crash in Texas, contradicting local law enforcement

Tesla CEO Elon Musk.
Tesla CEO Elon Musk.

  • Elon Musk again denied that the Tesla that crashed in Texas on April 17, killing two people, was on Autopilot.
  • A Tesla exec added it was likely that someone was in the driver’s seat at the time of the crash.
  • This contradicts statements made by local law enforcement.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk said on Monday that the Model S that crashed just outside Houston, Texas, earlier this month, killing two people, wasn’t on Autopilot – and that any suggestion otherwise was “completely false.”

Lars Moravy, Tesla’s vice president of vehicle engineering, added that he thought it was likely someone was in the driver’s seat at the time of the deadly crash, contradicting local law enforcement.

On April 17, a Tesla Model S skipped over a curb, crashed into a tree, and burst into flames, killing two people.

A Harris County constable told local TV station KHOU on April 18 that investigators were “100% certain that no one was in the driver seat driving that vehicle at the time of impact.” A senior Harris County officer said on April 19 that witnesses had suggested nobody was driving the vehicle earlier in its journey.

Tesla’s electric vehicles come with Autopilot, a feature that allows the cars to brake, accelerate, and steer automatically. Tesla tells drivers using Autopilot to remain in the driver’s seat with their hands on the steering wheel – but earlier this month, Consumer Reports showed it was possible to turn on Autopilot with nobody in the driver’s seat.

Musk previously said that Autopilot was not being used at the time of the crash. Two days after the crash, he tweeted: “Data logs recovered so far show Autopilot was not enabled.”

Read more: The electric car boom is coming to wipe out auto dealer profits. Consolidating into ‘super dealers’ may be their only way to survive.

During Tesla’s earnings call Monday, Musk said that “there were really just extremely deceptive media practices where it was claimed to be Autopilot but this is completely false.” He didn’t reference any specific media reports.

Moravy said that Tesla had been working with local authorities, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) to investigate the crash.

“The steering wheel was indeed deformed so we’re leaning to the likelihood that someone was in the driver’s seat at the time of the crash,” Moravy said.

“All seatbelts post-crash were found to be unbuckled,” he added. Tesla’s Autopilot only works when seatbelts are buckled in.

Moravy said that Tesla was unable to recover the data from the vehicle’s SD card at the time of impact, but that the local authorities were working on that.

“We continue to hold safety in a higher regard and look to improve products in the future through this kind of data and other information from the field,” he added.

Tesla also sells its full self-driving software (FSD) as a $10,000 one-off add-on, which it plans to release widely in 2021. FSD allows cars to park themselves, change lanes, and identify both stop signs and traffic lights.

Neither Autopilot nor FSD makes a Tesla car fully autonomous.

At least three drivers have died while using Tesla’s Autopilot, and the National Transportation Safety Board has called for increased scrutiny of self-driving software.

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Consumer Reports proved that a Tesla will drive with nobody behind the wheel following fatal crash

Tesla Model Y.
Consumer Reports demonstrated it’s not all that difficult to get around Tesla’s safety systems.

  • Consumer Reports showed that it’s possible to turn on Tesla Autopilot with nobody behind the wheel.
  • The firm’s car-testing director was able to sit in the passenger’s seat while the Tesla drove itself.
  • The demonstration comes after a fatal Tesla crash where authorities said nobody was driving.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Consumer Reports on Thursday proved just how simple it is to fool a Tesla into driving without anybody behind the wheel.

Engineers from the consumer-research organization bypassed Tesla’s safety systems on a closed test track to show that – without too much fuss – the carmaker’s Autopilot driver-assistance technology can be engaged without anybody in the driver’s seat. They posted a video explaining how they did it.

The report comes after authorities said nobody was behind the wheel when a Tesla Model S careened off the road and into a tree in Texas on Saturday, killing its two occupants. Tesla CEO Elon Musk said in a Monday tweet that data logs recovered “so far” show that Autopilot wasn’t enabled at the time of the crash. Local police, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and the National Transportation Safety Board are all investigating the cause of the incident.

Tesla has two methods of ensuring that a driver is paying attention when using Autopilot, an advanced driver-assistance system that keeps a car between lane markings and maintains a set distance to other cars. Both safeguards were easily defeated by Consumer Reports, though the outlet urges that nobody replicate its findings under any circumstances.

Autopilot can only be engaged when the driver’s seatbelt is fastened. Consumer Reports engineers bypassed that by fastening the seatbelt before getting in the car. Autopilot also needs to feel some resistance from a driver’s hand resting on the steering wheel. Consumer Reports achieved that by hanging a small amount of weight from the wheel.

The result was that Jake Fisher, the outlet’s senior director of auto testing, was able to engage Autopilot, bring the car to a stop, climb into the passenger’s seat, and bring the car back up to speed from there using a dial on the steering wheel. The Tesla Model Y followed lane markings on Consumer Reports’ test track and didn’t issue any warning that nobody was behind the wheel.

Read more: Meet the 11 power players of the self-driving industry from leading companies like Tesla, Zoox, and Morgan Stanley

“In our evaluation, the system not only failed to make sure the driver was paying attention, but it also couldn’t tell if there was a driver there at all,” Fisher said in the report. “It was a bit frightening when we realized how easy it was to defeat the safeguards, which we proved were clearly insufficient.”

Tesla did not return Insider’s request for comment.

Consumer Reports’ controlled demonstration confirms what has already been displayed in numerous viral videos, like one from November in which a Tesla owner climbs into the back seat and closes his eyes while his car cruises down the highway. In a clip posted in September, a Tesla owner shows it’s possible to climb out of a car’s window with Autopilot engaged.

The outlet said that Tesla is “falling behind” other automakers when it comes to monitoring driver attention while advanced driver-assistance systems are operating. General Motors’ Super Cruise uses internal cameras to make sure a driver is looking at the road, and Ford’s upcoming BlueCruise will do the same.

Are you a Tesla customer or employee with a story to share? Contact this reporter at tlevin@insider.com.

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The deadly, flaming Tesla crash happened on an upscale street near Houston and left a charred wreck. The unsolved mystery is whether anyone was driving.

Tesla crash composite thumb
A composite image showing the approximate crash site, with an image of the crash inset.

  • The Tesla crash in Texas that killed two people has raised a question of whether anyone was driving.
  • While the police say nobody was in the front seat, Elon Musk says Autopilot was not engaged.
  • Here’s a timeline of what we know about the crash so far.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The fatal crash of a Tesla Model S near Houston, Texas, last Saturday night has left two people dead and prompted regulators to launch an investigation.

Two men were killed in the crash in Spring, an affluent Houston suburb, after the car skipped over a curb, crashed into a tree, and burst into flames. Tesla’s stock fell 6.5% after news of the crash broke.

The deaths have prompted one overriding question, which has so far produced seemingly conflicting answers: Was anyone driving?

Here is a timeline of what has been reported on the crash so far:

2 best friends were taking the Model S out for a spin

One of the victims’ brother-in law, who was not named, told KPRC 2 that the two men in the car were best friends who had taken the car out.

One of the victims has been identified as 59-year-old medic Dr. William Varner. The second victim, a 69-year-old engineer, has not yet been named, ABC-13 reported.

There are conflicting reports of exactly when the crash happened, with KPRC 2 and KHOU 11 saying it took place around 11:25 p.m., and ABC-13 saying it was just after 9 p.m.

Texas Tesla Crash.
The wreckage of the Tesla Model S.

They crashed a stone’s throw away from where they set out

It’s unclear exactly where the car set out from, but the family member who spoke to KPRC 2 said the crash was only a few hundred yards away.

The family member also told KPRC 2 that the owner had backed out of the driveway, and then may have moved to the back seat.

According to all reports, the car failed to negotiate a bend in the road on Hammock Dunes Place, a cul-de-sac.

Traveling at high speed, it careened off the road, crashed into a tree, and burst into flames.

Relatives watched the blaze, which went on for hours

The fire went on for hours, Mark Herman of the Harris County Precinct 4 told KHOU 11.

“Normally when the fire department arrives, they have the vehicle fire in control in minutes, but this went on close to four hours,” said Herman.

The Tesla’s lithium batteries gave firefighters a much bigger challenge, Reuters reported.

The family member of one of the victims told KPRC 2 that relatives watched the efforts to put out the flames.

Tesla Texas crash.
Authorities told local media they were certain nobody was driving the car at the time of the crash.

Nobody agrees exactly what was going on in the driver’s seat

Herman told KHOU 11 that he was sure nobody had been in the driver’s seat.

He said that one victim was in the passenger seat, and the other was in the back.

Sheriff’s deputies who recovered the bodies once the fire went out, “are 100% certain that no one was in the driver seat driving that vehicle at the time of impact,” he said.

Yet in a Monday tweet, Tesla CEO Elon Musk said that the car had not enabled the Autopilot feature, producing a mystery about why nobody seemed to have been behind the wheel.

“Data logs recovered so far show Autopilot was not enabled & this car did not purchase FSD,” Musk wrote, referring to the car’s Full Self-Driving mode.

When switched on, Autopilot keeps a car centered in its lane and maintains a steady distance from other vehicles, but does not make cars autonomous. Full Self-Driving mode automates some driving tasks, but still requires a driver’s full attention.

Tesla has access to regular operational data from its cars, Reuters reported.

In response to Musk’s comments, Herman told Reuters: “If he is tweeting that out, if he has already pulled the data, he hasn’t told us that. We will eagerly wait for that data.”

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board are both investigating the crash.

Tesla did not immediately respond to Insider’s request for comment.

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