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The NTSB Determines That Tesla's Autopilot Was Not Active in a Fatal Crash in Texas After Investigators Claimed ‘No One Was in the Driver's Seat'

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【Summary】After an investigation into a Tesla Model S crash in Texas that killed two passengers, the National Traffic Safety Board (NTSB) determined that Autopilot could not have been active without a driver behind the wheel. Local police claimed there was no one in the driver’s seat at the time of the crash, fueling rumors that Tesla's Autopilot could be somehow engaged without a driver behind the wheel.

FutureCar Staff    May 10, 2021 4:00 PM PT
The NTSB Determines That Tesla's Autopilot Was Not Active in a Fatal Crash in Texas After Investigators Claimed ‘No One Was in the Driver's Seat'

After two occupants traveling in a Tesla Model S were killed in a crash near Houston, Texas on April 17, local police turned the case into a national story after investigators on scene claimed there was no one in the driver's seat at the time of the crash.

The investigators in Texas said that neither of the two victims was behind the wheel at the time of the crash, which shifted the blame to the safety of Tesla's Autopilot automated driving feature. The Tesla Model S was traveling on a roadway near Woodlands, Texas.

Deputies said that the Model S sedan was traveling at a high rate of speed when the vehicle came to a slight curve, left the roadway about 100 feet and crashed into a tree. Upon impact the Model S burst into flames.

However the story gained widespread attention after Constable Mark Herman claimed that neither of the two victims were behind the wheel, which fueled internet rumors and speculation that Tesla's Autopilot could somehow be activated without a driver behind the wheel.

"They are 100 percent certain that no one was in the driver seat driving that vehicle at the time of impact. They are positive," said Constable Herman in a statement. "And again, the height from the back seat to the front seat, that would be almost impossible, but again our investigators are trained. They handle collisions. Several of our folks are reconstructionists, but they feel very confident just with the positioning of the bodies after the impact that there was no one driving that vehicle."

The media attention prompted the National Traffic Safety Board (NTSB) to open its own investigation into the April crash, which contradicted the claims of local authorities. The NTSB determined that Autopilot could not have been active without a driver behind the wheel, Reuters reported.

The NTSB said in order to engage the system, it requires that both Traffic Aware Cruise Control and Autosteer be engaged.

Tesla's Traffic-Aware Cruise Control matches a car's speed to that of surrounding traffic, while Autosteer assists in steering. Autosteer however, only works when there are painted road lines.

In addition, the NTSB also said it reviewed footage from the owner's home security cameras, which showed the owner entering the driver's seat and the passenger entering the front passenger seat moments before the fatal crash. The security camera footage disputes that no one was behind the wheel. 

The Tesla Model S traveled 550 feet before departing the road on a curve and jumped the curb. The car then struck a drainage culvert, a raised manhole, and a tree, the NTSB said.

The crash killed the 59-year-old owner, William Varner, an anesthesiologist, and a 69-year-old passenger.

The NTSB's findings mirror that of Tesla Chief Executive Elon Musk, who confidently said Tesla's Autopilot feature could not be activated on that particular stretch of road since there were no painted lane markings. The NTSB also backed Musk's claims and stated that Autosteer was not available on that part of the road.

Musk also added that the Model S was not equipped with Tesla's optional Full Self-Driving (FSD) feature, which cost owners an additional $10,000.

Tesla's Autopilot autonomous driving systems use forward facing cameras that detect painted lane lines to keep a Tesla vehicle centered in a road lane while Autopilot is engaged.

Tesla could not be reached for comment.

Like other vehicles, Tesla's cars have block boxes that record vehicle data which can normally be reviewed to determine exactly what happened. But the crash damaged the vehicle's high-voltage lithium-ion battery, which resulted in a fire. The fire destroyed the onboard storage device in the Model S so no data could be recovered.

The NTSB said 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.

Tesla also collects data from its fleet which it reviews internally, but will only share it under a court order.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is also investigating the crash, along with many others involving Tesla's Autopilot.

The NHTSA said this week it has opened 28 investigations into crashes of Tesla vehicles, 24 of which remain active. At least four of the accidents occured since March.

In March, a Tesla Model Y rear-ended a police car that had stopped on a highway near Lansing, Mich. The driver who was not seriously injured, was using Autopilot, police said. That investigation is ongoing.

The crash in Texas occurred just hours after Musk shared the company's safety record for the first quarter of 2021 in a tweet on April 17. Musk is a fierce defender of Tesla's Autopilot and said it reduces the chances of an accident. 

According to Tesla's safety report, drivers are ten times less likely to get into an accident when Autopilot is turned on than in an average vehicle.

Tesla's latest safety report showed that the company registered one accident for every 4.19 million miles driven with Autopilot engaged. For comparison, The National Highway Traffic Safety Agency's (NHTSA) most recent data shows that in the U.S. there is an automobile crash every 484,000 miles.

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