Tesla Model S crash investigation: Driver likely behind the wheel after all

The NTSB says in a preliminary report the Model S traveled 550 feet before the crash occurred, and Autopilot was apparently not engaged.

Sean Szymkowski
It all started with Gran Turismo. From those early PlayStation days, Sean was drawn to anything with four wheels. Prior to joining the Roadshow team, he was a freelance contributor for Motor Authority, The Car Connection and Green Car Reports. As for what's in the garage, Sean owns a 2016 Chevrolet SS, and yes, it has Holden badges.
Sean Szymkowski
2 min read
2019 Tesla Model S Long Range
Enlarge Image
2019 Tesla Model S Long Range

Now it appears there was a driver behind the wheel.

Tim Stevens/Roadshow

The curious case of the Texas Tesla Model S crash grew more mysterious on Monday after the National Transportation Safety Board issued a preliminary report amid an ongoing investigation. The most significant finding so far is the fact the NTSB reported camera footage suggests there was a driver behind the wheel -- at least when the Model S departed the owner's home.

The crash occurred on April 17 and left two people dead. According to the NTSB's initial findings, two men entered the Model S: one in the driver's seat and the other in the passenger seat. It remains unclear if the driver remained in the driver's seat. The vehicle then made it 550 feet before the vehicle departed a curve in the road, drove over a curb, hit a drainage culvert and manhole and struck a tree. The Model S caught fire and destroyed the entire car -- including part of the control module, which houses critical safety data for the agency to analyze. 

Local authorities first reported last month that no one was behind the wheel of the Model S at the time of impact, which quickly prompted a rebuttal from Tesla CEO Elon Musk. Musk said in a tweet then, "Data logs recovered so far show Autopilot was not enabled and this car did not purchase FSD." He added Autopilot "would require lane lines to turn on, which this street did not have." 

Indeed, when NTSB tried to recreate Autopilot engaging in an identical Model S, the system would not initiate. The agency said Traffic Aware Cruise Control did engage, but Autosteer did not, which means Autopilot, in its most assistive form, was likely not active. Autopilot is only a Level 2 driver-assist system on the SAE's scale of autonomy, and does not drive the car autonomously.

The NTSB cautioned this preliminary report does not include any final takeaways from the crash and the investigation remains ongoing as its laboratories access data from the Model S' control module. The NTSB confirmed Tesla is cooperating with the investigation.

Refreshed Tesla Model S has a Knight Rider steering wheel

See all photos