Telsa Executives Says Fatal ‘Driverless’ Crash Had Driver

The mystery surrounding the death of two men in Texas in a ‘driverless’ Tesla car accident continues to deepen, with Tesla executives directly contradicting statements from local law enforcement officials.

Earlier this month a 2019 Tesla Model S burst into flames, after it crashed into a tree north of Houston, with no one behind the wheel of the car, according to local police.

Authorities 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.

Image credit: Tesla

Fatal crash

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.

But this is not sitting well with Elon Musk and 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 denial

But during an earning call on Monday, Tesla’s top executives were reported by the Verge as saying that someone was in the driver’s seat in deadly Texas crash.

Lars Moravy, Tesla’s vice president of vehicle engineering, reportedly 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 a potentially important clue.

Seatbelt clue?

“All seatbelts post-crash were found to be unbuckled,” Moravy added.

Although it is not clear at this stage whether the beats were unbuckled by rescue officials.

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.

One engineer sat in the driver seat on top of a buckled seat belt. This is because Autopilot will disengage if the driver’s seat belt is unbuckled while the vehicle is in motion.

The engineer then engaged Autopilot while the car was in motion on the track, then climbed out of the drivers seat into the passenger seat, after attaching a small, weighted chain on the steering wheel, to simulate the weight of a driver’s hand.

The car’s Autopilot system drove down the test track, without any driver in the driver’s seat.

A spokesperson for the NHTSA declined to comment to the Verge, while a representative for the NTSB did not respond to a request for comment.

Moravy said that Tesla was unable to recover the SD card from the vehicle, but that local law enforcement was working on getting that to the company.

“We continue to hold safety in a high regard and look to improve our products in the future, through this kind of data and other information from the field,” Tesla’s Moravy added.

Tom Jowitt

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelancer and long standing contributor to Silicon UK. He is also a bit of a Lord of the Rings nut...

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