Federal agency investigating ‘driverless’ Tesla car crash that killed two men, says Autosteer was unlikely to have been operating
The US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has issued its preliminary findings of the Tesla car crash in Texas that killed two men.
And while its investigation is still continuing, and there is no conclusion about what caused the crash, the NTSB seems to back Elon Musk’s insistence that the Tesla Autopilot system was not engaged at the time of the accident.
It is a busy time for world’s most valuable car maker. Tesla is to open its first European Gigafactory at a site near Berlin later this year, but seems to be ignoring talks with the powerful IG Metall metalworkers’ union about unionising the workforce.
But the car maker has had to deal with some other unwelcome publicity when a 2019 Tesla Model S burst into flames, after it crashed into a tree north of Houston last month.
What made this crash notable was that no one was apparently behind the wheel of the car, according to local police.
Indeed, local police said they are 100 percent certain no one was driving, and insist the two dead male passengers may have potentially been utilising Autopilot (Tesla’s semi-automated driving system) in an extremely unsafe (i.e. idiotic) manner.
The police said the body of one passenger was located in the front passenger seat, while the other was located in the back seat of the Tesla.
Elon Musk was quick to cast doubt on that law enforcement theory, when he said data recovered so far showed Autopilot was not enabled.
Musk had been responding to a person’s tweet that questioned the official account, who said the police version did not make sense as Tesla safety measures in place with the Autopilot Seat is weighted to make sure there is a driver, plus hands must be on steering wheel every 10 seconds or it disengages.
However engineers at influential US magazine Consumer Reports (CR) then demonstrated how easy it is to defeat Autopilot’s driver monitoring system.
Consumer Reports said its engineers easily tricked a Tesla Model Y so that it could drive on Autopilot, without anyone in the driver’s seat – a scenario that would present extreme danger if it were repeated on public roads.
Tesla officials however repeated their stance and insisted that someone was in the driver’s seat in deadly Texas crash.
Lars Moravy, Tesla’s vice president of vehicle engineering, said that company representatives were able to inspect the crash, along with local law enforcement and investigators from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).
Moravy said the company was able to determine that the steering wheel was “deformed,” leading them to conclude there was someone in the driver’s seat at the time of the crash.
And he noted “All seatbelts post-crash were found to be unbuckled,” Moravy added.
This is important as Tesla’s Autopilot system that can ‘drive’ the car, can only operate when the seatbelts are buckled. An unbuckled seatbelts suggests that Autopilot cannot have been engaged.
The Consumer Reports test however saw engineers ‘trick’ the Autopilot into driving down the road without anyone in the driver’s seat.
Into this mystery about whether the Tesla had someone in the driver’s seat, comes the NSTB with its own preliminary report of the fatal Tesla crash.
It should be stressed that the NSTB has not yet reached an official conclusion about what caused the crash, or whether the driver misused the driver systems on the car.
The NTSB report noted that home surveillance video shows the driver and his friend getting into the driver’s seat and front passenger’s seat of the 2019 Model S sedan and then heading down the road.
The Tesla was equipped with Autopilot, the preliminary report stated.
However, in test drives the NTSB carried out using 2019 Model S Tesla vehicles on the same road where the crash occurred, the agency could not engage one feature of the Autopilot system known as “Autosteer,” which helps a car stay centered within a lane.
“[Two] 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,” the report stated.
And it seems the NTSB test car was using had the exact same software version as the one that crashed.
“The vehicle was equipped with Autopilot, Tesla’s advanced driver assistance system,” the report states. “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 a result of the crash and fire, both car occupants were fatally injured,” the report noted. “The NTSB continues to collect data to analyse the crash dynamics, postmortem toxicology test results, seat belt use, occupant egress, and electric vehicle fires.”
“All aspects of the crash remain under investigation as the NTSB determines the probable cause, with the intent of issuing safety recommendations to prevent similar crashes.” it added. “The NTSB is working alongside the Harris County Texas Precinct 4 Constable’s Office, which is conducting a separate, parallel investigation. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and Tesla are supporting the NTSB in the investigation.
Typical NTSB investigations can take as long as 12 to 24 months to conclude.