NTSB Finds Driver Seat Was Occupied in Fatal Tesla Crash in Spring, Texas

Scott J. Engle | via Reuters
  • The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) just released new detail in a high-profile investigation into a fatal crash involving a Tesla Model S in Spring, Texas on April 17 this year.
  • The federal vehicle safety watchdog found that driver and passenger seats were both occupied at the time of the collision and both people were wearing their seatbelts.
  • This finding contradicts what officials said they thought had happened in the days following the crash. The NTSB investigation is not yet complete.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) published an update Thursday on its investigation into a fatal crash involving a Tesla on April 17 this year. The federal vehicle safety watchdogs found that driver and passenger seats were occupied at the time of the collision and that both people were wearing their seatbelts.

The NTSB also said that data taken from an "event data recorder," or the car's black box, indicate that the driver "was applying the accelerator in the time leading up to the crash." In the 5 seconds leading up to the crash, the car reached a high speed of 67 miles per hour.

The NTSB's finding contradicts what officials believed had occurred in the days following the crash, according to press interviews with Harris County Precinct 4 Constable Mark Herman in April.

For example, Herman told KHOU-TV that officials "feel very confident just with the positioning of the bodies after the impact that there was no one driving that vehicle." Herman described a person found in the front passenger seat and another in the rear passenger seat after the crash. The New York Times also reported that Herman said officials believed "no one was driving the vehicle at the time of the crash."

Local authorities are investigating this crash in parallel with NTSB. The crash caused the car's high-voltage lithium-ion battery to ignite, burning both the passenger and driver badly and destroying the car, which has made investigations challenging.

One question all of these authorities have is whether Tesla's vehicle, or any components of it, including software, may have been defective in a way that contributed to or caused the accident. While the latest findings are inconclusive on that point, they do rule out the scenario that the driver was not in the seat behind the wheel. Tesla has drawn criticism for its design, testing and marketing of driver assistance systems, including failure to prevent drivers from abusing or over-estimating the capabilities of Autopilot and FSD.

The NTSB's update Thursday specified that a full investigation has not yet been completed. The federal office noted:

"All aspects of the crash, including Tesla's advanced driver assistance system, the postcrash fire, occupant egress, and results of the driver's toxicological tests, remain under investigation while the NTSB determines the probable cause, with the intent of issuing safety recommendations to prevent similar events in the future."

Bloomberg reported that an autopsy report showed one of the victims had a blood-alcohol level exceeding the state's legal driving limit at the time of the crash.

Tesla did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the latest developments.

Fuzzy definitions

Tesla sells two tiers of driver assistance systems under the brand names Autopilot, and Full Self-Driving (FSD). It also releases a "beta," or pre-release version, of its Full Self Driving software to some customers who have the premium FSD option, which costs $10,000 up front or $199 per month.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk said on a Feb. 11 episode of the Joe Rogan Experience podcast: "I think Autopilot's getting good enough that you won't need to drive most of the time unless you really want to."

However, Tesla Autopilot, FSD and FSD Beta are not capable of controlling the electric vehicles in all normal driving circumstances. The company specifies in owners' manuals and other communications with customers that drivers should remain attentive to the road and at the wheel at all times even while using Autopilot, FSD or FSD Beta.

NTSB revealed earlier this year that while the Model S was equipped with Tesla's standard Autopilot driver assistance package, the software's Autosteer feature could not be engaged when investigators used a test car used at the same location where the crash occurred. However, the sample car was able to engage a different feature, Traffic-Aware Cruise Control, on that part of the road.

According to Tesla's website, Traffic-Aware Cruise Control matches the speed of a person's car to that of surrounding traffic, while Autosteer assists in steering within a clearly marked lane, and works in conjunction with traffic-aware cruise control.

Separately, NHTSA is also investigating Tesla Autopilot, and trying to determine if it had or has any safety defects that led to a string of crashes where Tesla drivers hit parked first responder vehicles on the side of the road in low light conditions. In those twelve crashes included in the investigation, NHTSA found, drivers had Autopilot or traffic aware cruise control engaged.

On an earnings call to discuss third-quarter results yesterday, Tesla Vice President of Vehicle Engineering Lars Moravy said during these investigations his team is always "cooperative" with NHTSA. He said, "We expect and embrace the scrutiny of these products and know that the truth about their performance and the innovations our products have will ultimately be all that matters."

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