The preliminary report by the National Transportation Safety Board raised the possibility that one of two key components of Tesla Inc.’s Autopilot, the electric-car maker’s suite of advanced driver-assistance systems, may not have been engaged during a fatal crash last month in Texas.
The accident on the night of April 17 in Harris County killed the two occupants, and local authorities said they believed no one was at the wheel at the time of the crash.
Using Autopilot requires both its cruise control and automatic steering to be engaged, the safety board said. Tests at the crash location with a similar car “showed that Traffic Aware Cruise Control could be engaged but that Autosteer was not available on that part of the road,” the report said.
Home-security camera footage from the Tesla owner’s home, where the fatal trip started, showed “the owner entering the car’s driver’s seat and the passenger entering the front passenger seat,” the report said. “The car leaves and travels about 550 feet before departing the road on a curve, driving over the curb, and hitting a drainage culvert, a raised manhole, and a tree.”
All aspects of the accident are still under investigation, the preliminary report said.
A fire after the crash destroyed the car and partially damaged a module that can record data on the car’s speed, belt use, and other aspects of the crash. That module was recovered and taken to a NTSB lab for an evaluation.
The NTSB is working alongside Tesla, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and Harris County authorities, the latter of which is conducting its own investigation, it said.
When Tesla reported first-quarter results last month, Chief Executive Elon Musk said Tesla was working with local and federal authorities to investigate the crash and said Autopilot could not have been engaged under the conditions of the accident.
The crash has drawn renewed scrutiny to Autopilot, which has been criticized in some quarters for giving some drivers a false sense of security, and for its name implying self-driving abilities well beyond the suite’s current capabilities.