National Transportation Safety Board investigators said in a preliminary report Monday that the owner of a Tesla was in the driver’s seat shortly before the car hit a tree in Texas and burst into flames last month, killing both occupants.
Footage from a “home security camera shows the owner entering the car’s driver’s seat and the passenger entering the front passenger seat,” the NTSB report noted. The Tesla Model S traveled only 550 feet — about two blocks — before crashing into the tree on April 17 in suburban Houston, the report added.
The car was equipped with Tesla’s optional Autopilot automated steering feature, but data that would reveal whether the system was engaged was damaged by the fire, according to the NTSB. Officials emphasized that the NTSB report is preliminary and subject to change as the probe continues.
Harris County is continuing its separate investigation into the crash. A Harris County constable said earlier that no one was in the driver’s seat when firefighters arrived to douse the flaming wreckage, raising fresh questions about Tesla’s Autopilot system.
The owner of the 2019 Tesla Model S and a friend were overheard by their wives talking about trying out the Autopilot as they left the owner’s home for a drive.
Tesla CEO Elon Musk has insisted that the car could not have been driverless because the Autopilot had not been engaged. Musk said the system couldn’t have been on because the car was traveling on a road that lacked marked lane lines, which Autopilot requires to work.
Although Tesla warns drivers not to take their hands off the steering wheel when the car is operating on Autopilot, drivers have been known to fall asleep at the wheel, read or text, or stop paying attention to the road when using the feature.
“Autopilot is intended for use with a fully attentive driver, who has their hands on the wheel and is prepared to take over at any time,” the Tesla website states. The “currently enabled features do not make the vehicle autonomous.”
A video featured on Tesla’s site shows a cruising car with the driver’s hands in his lap. A message notes that the “person in the driver’s seat is only there for legal reasons. He is not doing anything. The car is driving itself.”
Tesla could not immediately be reached for comment on the NTSB report. The company eliminated its public relations department last year.
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