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Tesla not at fault in fatal crash, driver was not watching a movie

The driver in last year's accident kept his hands off the wheel despite numerous automated warnings, according to a US agency report, but he wasn't watching a Harry Potter movie like some reports suggested.

2016 Tesla Model S 60
Emme Hall/Roadshow

While nothing can reverse the course of events that left a Tesla driver dead after a collision with a semi truck, the government has cleared Tesla itself of any fault.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) opened its docket on the May 2016 crash that claimed the life of Joshua Brown, a former Navy SEAL whose Tesla Model S collided with a tractor-trailer. More than 500 pages of information makes one thing clear -- Autopilot was not at fault in the accident, the driver was.

According to the docket, the Autopilot-engaged Tesla did what it was supposed to, issuing multiple warnings to Brown as he kept his hands off the steering wheel for an extended period of time. In fact, over a 37-minute period of driving, the car registered Brown's hands on the wheel for just 25 seconds. Tesla did not immediately return a request for comment, but the company has never been shy about pointing out that Autopilot requires a human to pay attention at all times.

The Tesla Model S driver ignored multiple warnings to keep his hands on the wheel, the NTSB concluded.


The NTSB's report says that two Autopilot systems were active -- adaptive cruise control, which allows the vehicle to set and maintain a pace relative to traffic in front of the car, and Autosteer, which holds the vehicle in its lane.

After the crash, reports circulated that the driver was distracted, perhaps by watching a movie while Autopilot was engaged. The NTSB recovered several electronic devices, including Brown's laptop, but according to the report, "...the investigators did not uncover any evidence that those devices were in use at the time of the crash." A lawyer for the Brown family told Reuters that any claims to the contrary were "unequivocally false."

The NTSB's findings are similar to those of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which last month also exonerated Tesla of any wrongdoing, claiming no defects were present in the system and that the driver should have had ample opportunity to apply the brakes after spotting the truck. The SEC was also investigating Tesla for the timeliness with which it notified the feds after learning of the accident.

In the months that followed, Tesla completely reengineered its Autopilot system, producing vehicles that the automaker claimed would be capable of full autonomy in the future. Previous statements from the company and its CEO suggest that the changes made during the move to "Hardware 2.0" could have prevented Brown's fatal crash.