If you were following Tesla at all last week, you probably saw the story of a crashed Tesla near Houston, Texas. We covered it here, and provided more information as it came out here. Long story short, there was a lot of misinformation, out of context facts, and even outright lies floating around about the fire story. Now it looks like the clearest piece of information, that investigators were “100% certain” there was nobody in the driver’s seat, is in serious doubt.
To be fair to myself, I did raise alternative possibilities when it came to the reporting that there was no driver in the driver’s seat, but it’s becoming clear that public officials weren’t nearly as certain as the local constable said they were.
Today’s new information comes from Tesla’s first quarter earnings call. For convenience, I fast forwarded it to the point in the call with the information about the Houston-area crash (1:14:15):
Elon: “Extremely Deceptive Media Practices”
When asked a question about falsehoods in the media, Elon Musk said that he felt there were “extremely deceptive media practices.” He said much of the reporting was “completely false,” and that journalists should be ashamed of themselves.
I personally agree with most of this. The more honest reporters I know merely reported what was said, and most of what was said initially came from Mark Herman, Harris County, Texas’ Constable for Precinct 4. He told media outlets that investigators were “100 percent certain that no one was in the driver seat driving that vehicle at the time of impact.”
This statement, even when reported accurately, left even honest media holding the bag (as I’ll explain further below). To have an elected official make such a strong and certain statement led others in the media in some bad directions. Even when Elon Musk told us that the crash data indicated that Autopilot wasn’t on, the speculation ran rampant, with many concluding that Autopilot must’ve been on if there wasn’t a driver in the driver’s seat.
Even worse, we saw Consumer Reports run the furthest with this and show everyone how to cheat Autopilot’s safety features, despite that they knew (or should have known) by that point that Autopilot wasn’t used at all during the crash in Texas.
During the conference call, one caller asked, “Does Tesla have any proactive plans to tackle mainstream media’s imminent massive and deceptive ‘click bait headline’ campaigns on safety of Autopilot/FSD? Perhaps a specialty PR job of some sort?”
In response, Lars Moravy, Tesla’s VP of Vehicle Engineering, got into the details of the recent crash near Houston. He said that an investigation has been going on over the past week, and that Tesla is fully cooperating. He also indicated that Autopilot “did not and could not” engage on that street, which further confirms Elon Musk’s previous tweet and the statements of many Tesla owners. On top of that, he told us that adaptive cruise (ACC) was not used. ACC won’t work without the driver’s seatbelt buckle clicked in, and investigators found all seatbelts unbuckled in the vehicle.
Data from an SD card connected to the vehicle has not yet been recovered, and this would shed further light on the situation. He also told us that investigators were still attempting to recover data.
Most importantly, there’s now evidence emerging that there was a driver in the driver’s seat at the time of the crash. The steering wheel was deformed, which probably indicates that someone struck it in the crash. If there was nobody in the seat, there would be no reason for the steering wheel to be deformed.
Wheel Deformation Probably Visible During Initial Investigation
This part of the article is speculation, but it seems logical that a deformed steering wheel would be visible during the initial investigation.
Two men dead after fiery crash in Tesla Model S.
“[Investigators] are 100-percent certain that no one was in the driver seat driving that vehicle at the time of impact,” Harris County Precinct 4 Constable Mark Herman said. “They are positive.” #KHOU11 https://t.co/q57qfIXT4f pic.twitter.com/eQMwpSMLt2
— Matt Dougherty (@MattKHOU) April 18, 2021
As badly as the vehicle was damaged, investigators still were able to determine the position of the occupants and say that they don’t think any of them were in the driver’s seat. We now know that there was enough left to determine that seat belts weren’t buckled. If seat belt buckles survived, then how would the metallic parts of the steering column and wheel not survive?
If the steering wheel was available as evidence, and crash reconstructionists were involved in the initial investigation, then how did they miss it, and become “100% certain” that nobody was up there?
We may get a better answer to this question, but for now it looks like someone in the loop here didn’t know what they were talking about.
My Revised Theory
In light of this new information, I’m going to revise my working theory for what happened in the crash.
Previously, I speculated (based on no driver in the seat) that the men attempted to activate Autopilot and ended up accidentally engaging cruise or ACC, which couldn’t turn and led the vehicle into a tree. We now know that someone may have been up there and that even ACC wasn’t used (and won’t work below 5 MPH), so that whole theory is out now.
My second preferred theory, that someone simply crashed it, seems to be the most plausible now. Most people who drive a 100-300 horsepower car don’t know that you have to ease into cars with more oomph. If you get into a car like a higher-end Tesla and stomp the skinny pedal, you can easily get into deep trouble a lot faster than you’d think. Get into enough trouble, and even the brakes can’t save you from slamming into something.
Like I said, we don’t know that such a thing happened here, but that’s the most likely scenario when there’s a driver in the seat and no assistance features were used.
[Editor’s note: I am also curious if alcohol was involved.]
But How Did The Driver End Up Elsewhere In The Car?
This seems to be the biggest open question at this point, and there’s not enough evidence that’s public yet for us to answer it.
I’ve seen some speculate that the marks higher up on the tree in some photos could mean the car’s nose initially climbed up the tree before falling back down when the rear wheels’ power was cut. This would give an unbuckled driver an opportunity to fall into the back. There’s also the possibility that the car could have struck another tree and spun into this one, which would also give opportunity for the driver to be displaced from the driver’s seat.
Speculation that there was a third man doesn’t seem to be very supported at this point (but, as we know, things change with more evidence). There’s the fact that family says the two men went alone, and they were obviously injured to the point where they couldn’t escape the fire. It seems unlikely that a third man joined them during the drive, was somehow like David Dunn in Unbreakable, and walked away from the crash while the others couldn’t get out.
CleanTechnica has sent the investigators’ multiple requests for further information, and we’ll let everyone know what we hear back (if anything).