Fatal 2021 Tesla crash tied to excessive speed, not Autopilot: NTSB

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The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) confirmed on Wednesday that its investigation into an April 2021 fatal crash involving a Tesla Model S found no indications that the vehicle was operating on Autopilot at the time of the incident. Instead, the probable cause of the crash was determined to be the driver’s excessive speed, alcohol impairment, and inability to maintain control of the vehicle.

Two men were fatally injured in the accident, which resulted in the ill-fated Tesla Model S bursting into flame. The men were determined to be 69-year-old engineer Everett Talbot and 59-year-old Dr. William Varner. One man was found in the front passenger seat while the other was found in the back seat. 

Following the crash, Harris County Pct. 4 Constable Mark Herman told reporters that investigators were “100% certain” that there was no one in the fill-fated Model S’ driver’s seat when it crashed. This prompted widespread coverage from numerous media outlets, with several immediately declaring the fatal incident as a “driverless” crash. 

“They are 100% certain that no one was in the driver seat driving that vehicle at the time of impact. They are positive… Several of our folks are reconstructionists, but they feel very confident just with the positioning of the bodies after the impact that there was no one driving that vehicle,” Herman told journalists. He later noted that a search warrant had been executed on Tesla to secure data about the tragic incident.

But while the idea of a fatal Tesla Autopilot crash may be compelling, there were immediately some issues with the idea. For one, the absence of lane markings in the area’s streets meant that Autopilot could not have been engaged. Traffic-Aware Cruise Control could only go up to 30 mph in the area as well. For context, the incident involved the Model S accelerating to 67 mph before it crashed.

Other details, such as the allegation that firefighters had to call Tesla for help due to the Model S’ supposed uncontrollable fire, were debunked by the fire chief for The Woodlands Township Fire Department a few days after the incident made international news. 

Needless to say, the findings of the NTSB have revealed that the fatal accident did not involve Autopilot at all. The agency noted that a review of the data from the crash showed “no use of the Autopilot system at any time during this ownership period of the vehicle, including the time frame up to the last transmitted timestamp on April 17, 2021.” 

The agency also noted that the probable cause of the crash was the “driver’s excessive speed and failure to control his car, due to impairment from alcohol intoxication in combination with the effects of two sedating antihistamines, resulting in a roadway departure, tree impact, and post-crash fire.”

The NTSB further noted that “the available evidence suggests that the driver was seated in the driver’s seat at the time of the crash and moved into the rear seat” and that “it was not possible to determine whether the doors were manually operational following the power loss.” These conclusions are in line with footage retrieved from the owner’s home, which showed the driver entering the ill-fated Model S’ front seat before driving away. 

Tesla has not issued a comment about the matter as of writing. Teslarati also conducted a deep dive into the matter in 2021. A link to that report, which includes pertinent background about the incident, can be viewed below.

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Fatal 2021 Tesla crash tied to excessive speed, not Autopilot: NTSB
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