Driver Was Behind Wheel of Tesla When It Crashed, But Questions Surround Autopilot: NTSB

A driver was behind the wheel during an April 17 Tesla crash, but no determination has been made if the Model S's Autopilot was running at the time the two passengers were killed, according to an investigative report.

The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) reported Thursday that during the Texas crash, the driver and passenger were in the front seats of the vehicle with belts buckled, although they were found by first responders in the back seat and front passenger seat, the Associated Press reported.

According to the report, a fire started after the crash damaged the lithium-ion battery case in the vehicle, but the report did not answer how or why the driver unbuckled the seat belt and changed positions.

The NTSB reported that the car was accelerating up to 67 mph in the five seconds before the crash, the accelerator pedal pressed as high as 98.8 percent, according to data from the car's fire-damaged event data recorder.

As the investigation continues, the NTSB said it is still investigating Autopilot, driver toxicology tests, whether the men could have had trouble exiting the vehicle, and other items.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Tesla Store in Denver
A report found that a driver was behind the wheel during an April 17 Tesla crash, but no determination has been made if the Model S's Autopilot was running at the time the two passengers were killed. Above, the Tesla store in Cherry Creek Mall in Denver on February 9, 2019. David Zalubowski/Associated Press

The fatal trip began at the owner's home near the end of a cul-de-sac, and home security video showed the owner getting into the driver's seat and the passenger entering the front passenger seat, the report said. The car traveled about 550 feet before leaving the road on a curve, going over a curb, hitting a drainage culvert, a raised manhole and a tree.

The crash occurred around 9:07 p.m. on Hammock Dunes Place, a two-lane residential road. The 59-year-old owner and the 69-year-old passenger were killed.

In a preliminary report from May, the NTSB said it tested a different Tesla vehicle on the same road, and the Autopilot driver-assist system could not be fully used. Investigators could not get the system's automated steering system to work, but were able to use Traffic Aware Cruise Control.

Autopilot needs both the cruise control and the automatic steering to function. Traffic Aware Cruise Control can keep the car a safe distance from vehicles in front of it, while autosteer keeps it in its own lane. The report said the road also did not have lane lines. That could have have been why the automatic steering wouldn't work.

The agency said it intends to issue safety recommendations to prevent similar crashes.

Local authorities said one man was found in the front passenger seat, while another was in the back.

Harris County Precinct Four Constable Mark Herman said at the time the car was traveling at a high speed. He would not say if there was evidence anyone tampered with Tesla's system to monitor the driver, which detects force from hands on the steering wheel. The system will issue warnings and eventually shut the car down if it doesn't detect hands. But critics said Tesla's system is easy to fool and can take as long as a minute to shut down.

Consumer Reports said in April that it was able to easily trick a Tesla into driving in Autopilot mode with no one at the wheel.

The NTSB, which has no regulatory authority and can only make recommendations, said it's working with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) on the probe. NHTSA has the power to make vehicle safety regulations. The federal probe is running at the same time as a parallel investigation by local authorities, the NTSB said.

The Texas crash raised questions of whether Autopilot was working at the time, and whether Tesla does enough to make sure drivers are engaged. The company says in owner's manuals and on its website that Autopilot is a driver-assist system and drivers must be ready to take action at any time.

Lars Moravy, Tesla's vice president of vehicle engineering, said on the company's April 26 earnings conference call that an inspection of the badly burned car found that the steering wheel was deformed, "so it was leading to a likelihood that someone was in the driver's seat at the time of the crash." He said all seat belts were found unbuckled.

On Twitter in April, Tesla CEO Elon Musk wrote that data logs "recovered so far" in the crashed show Autopilot wasn't turned on, and "Full Self-Driving" was not purchased for the vehicle in the Texas crash. He didn't answer reporters' questions posed on Twitter.

NHTSA has stepped up its investigations into Tesla Autopilot. In August, it opened a formal investigation into the system after a series of collisions with parked emergency vehicles.

The investigation covers 765,000 vehicles, almost everything that Tesla has sold in the U.S. since the start of the 2014 model year. Of the crashes identified as part of the probe, 17 people were injured and one was killed.

NHTSA says it has identified 12 crashes since 2018 in which Teslas on Autopilot or Traffic Aware Cruise Control have hit vehicles at scenes where first responders have used flashing lights, flares, an illuminated arrow board or cones warning of hazards.