It certainly is hard not to remember when two men tragically died in Spring, Texas, in April 2021 after the Tesla Model S they were traveling in slammed into a tree in a residential neighborhood and burst into flames. At the time of the incident, numerous reports blamed Tesla and its Autopilot driver-assist system, and it was assumed based on early reports that no one was in the driver's seat at the time of the crash.
According to Teslarati, Constable Mark Herman from Harris Country Precinct 4 shared the following information with reporters not long after the incident:
“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.”
The crash became very highly publicized, and the story changed often. In short, two men hopped into a Tesla Model S at the owner's home, headed just a short way down the street, missed a curve, and collided with a tree. The car went up in flames and they didn't get out in time. First responders at the scene didn't find anyone in the driver's seat, but that wasn't proof enough that no one had been driving in the first place, though the media ran with it and went after Tesla for its unsafe, driverless cars.
At the scene of the crash, one man was found in the passenger seat, and the other in the rear seat. A family member of one of the men told the authorities that he watched as the man moved into the back seats as the Model S started moving.
As expected, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the National Traffic Safety Board (NTSB) opened investigations into the incident. With the cooperation of Tesla, it was quickly determined that the EV maker's Autopilot system wasn't engaged at the time of the crash. The NTSB explained that based on the data, there was “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.”
Autopilot can't be engaged on a road without lane markings, so it wouldn't have allowed the men to turn it on anyhow. Moreover, if Autopilot were helping drive the car, someone would have needed to remain in the driver's seat. Hypothetically, Tesla's Traffic Aware Cruise Control (TACC) could have been engaged, but not beyond the road's maximum possible speed of 30 mph, as proven by the NTSB's thorough testing.
The NTSB went through a number of on-scene testing scenarios to rule out potential causes and attempt to figure out exactly what happened. A portion of the organization's official findings read as follows:
"On-scene exemplar vehicle testing confirmed the manufacturer-provided information that the car’s Autopilot feature could not have been engaged on the roadway where the crash occurred, due to the lack of lane markings. Investigators found that the TACC system was capable of being engaged; however, testing showed that with TACC engaged, the maximum speed possible on this roadway was approximately 30 mph. The acceleration achieved with TACC engaged was lower than the acceleration documented in the car’s EDR data. This evidence indicated that TACC was not engaged during the crash trip."
The NTSB concluded that the crash was caused by the driver driving too fast and being unable to control the car. It was also found that he had alcohol and sedatives in his system. In addition, the organization said that evidence suggests the driver was in the driver's seat when the crash occurred, though he likely moved to the rear seat after the collision with the tree.
Video footage from the Tesla owner's home shows him entering the driver's seat prior to pulling out onto the road. The NTSB was unable to determine if the doors could have been manually opened after the car lost power from the crash and fire.