A steering wheel deformation would say so.
Tesla waited for its Q1 2021 earnings call to finally address the fatal crash that killed two men in Texas. According to Lars Moravy, Tesla’s vice president for Vehicle Engineering, the information that there was no one in the driver’s seat that came from authorities at the crash site would not stand against the deformed steering wheel in the Model S.
Moravy said Tesla “worked directly with the local authorities, NTSB and NHTSA” and came to some conclusions regarding that crash. The first one was “that Autosteer did not and could not engage on the road condition as it was designed.” Despite that, the “adaptive cruise control only engaged when a driver was buckled in about 5 mph,” and “it only accelerated to 30 mph with the distance before the car crashed.” You can listen to him in the recording below.
You will also hear that the “adaptive cruise control disengaged the car fully to complete to a stop when the driver's seatbelt was unbuckled.” That suggests the ACC was activated, accelerated the car to 30 mph, and was deactivated when the seat belt was unbuckled. According to Moravy, “all seatbelts post-crash were found to be unbuckled.”
At this point in the recording, the Tesla VP reveals the most important element to deny the vehicle did not have anyone in the driver’s seat, as authorities reported. According to Moravy, “the steering wheel was indeed deformed, leading to a likelihood that someone was in the driver's seat at the time of the crash.” The theory is that the steering wheel deformed when the unbuckled driver hit it.
We have contacted NTSB and NHTSA to confirm the information Tesla presented. However, it is improbable they will do that with an ongoing investigation. We also asked if the deformed steering wheel is caused solely by a person hitting it or if there is any other possible reason for that.
Although the explanations shed more light on the crash, they still do not answer why there was no one in the driver’s seat. An unbuckled driver would have been projected to the windshield and could have been ejected from the car in a frontal crash such as that one.
If the crash was not at a higher speed than 30 mph, it is weird that the car caught fire. In the video above, made by NHTSA, a 2013 Model S hits an undeformable barrier at 35 mph, and you can see the battery pack is not affected. Although the crash must have happened in very different conditions, it is necessary to understand why it caused the fire. That answer will probably come only from NTSB and NHTSA when they can disclose what they discovered.