Tesla autopilot crash mystery solved

It wasn’t on autopilot after all.

Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board apparently have solved the mystery of why no one was found behind the steering wheel of a Tesla that crashed near The Woodlands two years ago, killing two men.

The agency said in an investigative report released Wednesday on the fiery April 17, 2021 crash that Dr. William Varner, who was driving a Tesla 2019 Model S, apparently moved to the back seat after slamming into the car’s front air bag, deforming the steering wheel in the crash.

The crash occurred less than 600 feet from where Varner, 59, and Everette Talbot, 69, began their trip in Varner’s driveway along Hammock Dunes Place in Carlton Woods Creekside, a private gated community. Both men were killed in the crash and related fire that significantly damaged the car.

Although the crash raised questions about whether the car was operating on Tesla’s “Autopilot” partially automated driving system, the NTSB determined that the system could not have been used on the street where the crash happened due to lack of lane lines. Testing showed the car’s “Traffic Aware Cruise Control” system could have been used, although it would only work up to the maximum speed on the road, 30 mph, the report said.

The 2019 Tesla reached 67 mph two seconds before hitting the second of two trees at 57 mph before being consumed by flames as the lithium-ion battery caught fire.

The Tesla’s event data recorder showed that the accelerator moved “consistent with driver activity” in the five seconds before the crash, and that the driver’s seat belt was connected when the crash happened.

“Although the driver’s seat was found vacant and the driver was found in the left rear seat, the available evidence suggests that the driver was seated in the driver’s seat at the time of the crash and moved into the rear seat postcrash,” the report said.

The agency found that excessive speed and failure to control the car due to alcohol impairment caused the crash. The report says testing by a Federal Aviation Administration lab found that Varner had a blood-alcohol level of 0.151 grams per deciliter, almost twice the Texas legal limit of 0.08. Two over-the-counter sedating antihistamine medications also were found in the Varner’s blood, according to the report.

See here, here, and here for the background. In the end, it was a run-of-the-mill DUI with some weird effects. There are reasons to be concerned about Tesla’s autopilot feature – especially this week – and indeed of autonomous vehicles in general, but this is not evidence of such concerns. At least now we know.

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