Back in April, a Tesla crashed outside Houston resulting in two deaths and a four-hour fire. When first responders got to the car, they found an empty driver’s seat — one occupant in the passenger seat, one in the rear, but no one behind the wheel. Now, months later, it seems the National Transportation Safety Board has come to a conclusion about how this all happened.
When news first broke of the fatal accident, many — including us — were quick to speculate that Autopilot had a hand in the collision. It’s a reasonable thing to suspect, given that the vehicle had apparently been found without a driver behind the wheel: Did a car, advertised with autonomous capabilities, manage to drive itself into a tree in a tech demo gone wrong?
According to the NTSB, the answer appears to be no:
The crash trip originated at the owner’s residence near the end of a cul-de-sac. 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 car leaves and travels about 167.64 m before departing the road on a curve, driving over the curb, and hitting a drainage culvert, a raised manhole, and a tree.
In addition to the footage, analysis of the steering wheel pointed to it being subjected to an impact, presumably from a driver. Once again from the NTSB:
A postcrash inspection of the car showed that the steering wheel was damaged and deformed. The steering wheel was removed and transported to the NTSB Materials Laboratory for detailed examination. Initial results indicate that although some damage was caused by the intense heat of the postcrash fire, deformation along the top and left side of the steering wheel’s outer rim, as shown in figure 3, was due to an impact.
Note that the NTSB does not discuss the vehicle’s airbags beyond stating in its report that it was evaluating a fire-damaged “restraint control module,” which could provide insight into the Tesla’s airbag deployment during the crash.
The NTSB specifically mentions Autopilot in its report, implying that the function was almost certainly not in use at the time of the crash:
The vehicle was equipped with Autopilot, Tesla’s advanced driver assistance system. Using Autopilot requires both the Traffic Aware Cruise Control and the Autosteer systems to be engaged. NTSB tests of an exemplar car at the crash location showed that Traffic Aware Cruise Control could be engaged but that Autosteer was not available on that part of the road.
Instead of anything autonomous, it seems the Tesla’s owner wanted to demonstrate a different EV perk to their passenger: speed. The NTSB’s analysis of data recorded by the car shows heavy acceleration and speeds more than double the limit on the cul-de-sac:
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 per cent. The highest speed recorded by the EDR in the 5 seconds leading up to the crash was 108 km/h.
NTSB notes that “No speed limit signs were posted in the crash area, but the maximum speed limit for the road was 48 km/h.”
While NTSB’s findings point towards the driver being at fault, there’s no discussion in the investigation update as to why neither occupant of the car was found in the driver’s seat. Some have speculated that the driver’s door may have been damaged in the collision, and that the driver crawled to the back in search of an exit, but nothing has been officially confirmed. It wouldn’t be the first time Tesla doors took a share of the blame in a fatal collision.
After all the discussion about Autopilot, and the tests on Tesla’s driver monitoring systems, the story of this crash appears to be a classic tale: too much horsepower in the hands of a driver who couldn’t keep hold of the reins. But while any fast car can run off-course, its inertia overpowering its tires’ grip, not every car can burn for four hours in the event of a crash. Teslas may score well in crash-safety tests, and carry no flammable gasoline, but many drivers are unprepared for the cars’ instant and considerable torque — the thrills may be high, but so are the risks.
This story has been updated with a note about airbag deployment