Federal investigators on Monday released their preliminary assessment of a deadly crash in Spring involving a Tesla, though many details of the incident remain under scrutiny, including whether anyone was in the driver’s seat at the time of the wreck.
In the two-page update, the National Transportation Safety Board said the crash occurred less than 600 feet from where Dr. William Varner, 59, and Everette Talbot, 69, began their trip in Varner’s driveway. NTSB officials said security camera footage shows Varner getting into the driver’s seat and Talbot getting in the front passenger seat.
Both were killed in the fiery crash, which took firefighters hours to extinguish because the car’s battery reignited several times.
Where Varner was when the crash happened is a point of contention between local crash investigators and Tesla officials. In the days after the crash, Harris County Precinct 4 Constable Mark Herman said investigators are confident no one was in the driver’s seat.
Tesla founder Elon Musk and other company officials have disputed that, saying evidence points to someone being in the seat, based on the damage to the steering column.
NTSB investigators in the report do not make a final determination.
“The car’s restraint control module, which can record data associated with vehicle speed, belt status, acceleration, and airbag deployment, was recovered but sustained fire damage,” investigators said in the report. “The restraint control module was taken to the National Transportation Safety Board recorder laboratory for evaluation.”
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.
As the footnote indicates, Traffic Aware Cruise Control handles acceleration and deceleration, while Autosteer keeps you in your lane. Autosteer requires lane markers to be utilized, which that stretch of road did not have. My takeaway from this is that the guys in the car would not have been able to engage the Autopilot, as Tesla has claimed. The investigation is ongoing, and as noted the NTSB has not yet determined a cause, so we still don’t really know what happened. I remain curious about this and look forward to the final report.
UPDATE: Here’s a longer version of the story.