A Tesla Model S that crashed and caught fire recently in Texas, killing two men, may have had someone in the driver’s seat, according to Tesla’s top executives. Their comments in an earnings call Monday contradict statements made by local law enforcement in the immediate aftermath of the crash, and could complicate the efforts by federal crash investigators who are also examining the incident.
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.
“All seatbelts post-crash were found to be unbuckled,” Moravy added. Tesla’s advanced driver assist system, Autopilot, can only operate when the seatbelts are buckled. (Consumer Reports recently was able to prove that Tesla’s vehicles can easily “tricked” into thinking a person is in the driver’s seat.)
If the government is upset with Tesla’s disclosures, it isn’t saying so. A spokesperson for the NHTSA declined to comment, 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,” he added.
The crash took place on Saturday, April 17th, in Spring, Texas. According to KHOU in Houston, investigators at the scene were “100 percent certain” that no one was in the driver’s seat at the time of the crash. Minutes before the crash, the wives of the men were said to overhear them talking about the Autopilot feature of the vehicle, which was a 2019 Tesla Model S, according to The New York Times. The two victims were identified as Everette Talbot, 69, and William Varner, 59, a prominent local anesthesiologist.
In the aftermath of the crash, Tesla CEO Elon Musk claimed that “data logs recovered so far” indicate that Autopilot was not engaged, nor had the vehicle owner purchased the company’s “Full Self-Driving” option that may have allowed the use of Autopilot on local roads. Today, the company took its comments a step further, directly contradicting law enforcement’s initial assessment of the incident.
It is not, however, the first time that Tesla has made public statements about a crash under investigation by the federal government. Musk has also been highly critical of media coverage about incidents involving Tesla vehicles, saying journalists are unfairly focusing on his company for sensationalist reasons and questioning why the numerous standard road deaths that occur every day are not covered as vigorously. (For a good counter argument, please read Jalopnik journalist Jason Torchinsky’s explanation about why Tesla crashes are newsworthy.)
In the call on Monday, Musk reiterated his critique of “deceptive media practices,” claiming that Autopilot was not in use at the time of the Texas crash, and slamming journalists for saying otherwise.
“Those journalists should be ashamed with themselves,” Musk said.