The owner of a Tesla Inc. Model S that slammed into a tree last month, who died along with a passenger, was behind the wheel when the car left his house shortly before the crash.
A home surveillance camera captured the owner entering the driver’s seat before the car slowly drove away and accelerated, the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board said in a preliminary report Monday.
Police in the Houston suburb had initially said it appeared that nobody was behind the wheel. The driver’s body was found in the back seat and another person was in the passenger’s seat after a fire.
While the NTSB didn’t specifically say whether the driver was still operating the car, the preliminary report at least suggests that was possible, bolstering Tesla’s assertions that Autopilot, its driver assistance technology, was not engaged prior to the crash.
The car’s automated steering system appeared not to have been switched on, investigators said. An NTSB test of a similar vehicle showed other automated driving features could have been activated, but not the so-called Autosteer.
William Varner, 59, and Everette Talbot, 69, died when the Model S hit a tree and caught on fire in The Woodlands, a wealthy neighborhood in greater Houston. The fatal crash generated enormous attention.
Lars Moravy, Tesla’s vice president of vehicle engineering, said on the company’s most recent earnings call that the steering wheel was “deformed,” leading to the likelihood that someone was in the driver’s seat at the time of the crash.
The NTSB’s preliminary report provided the most detailed account yet of the crash, but did not answer a key question: When did the driver of the car move from behind the wheel to the back seat?
The home security camera captured the crash, the NTSB said. “The car leaves and travels about 550 feet before departing the road on a curve, driving over the curb, and hitting a drainage culvert, a raised manhole and a tree,” the NTSB said in the report.
The impact damaged the front of the vehicle’s high-voltage lithium-ion battery, which is where the fire first started, NTSB said. Lithium-based batteries are highly flammable and difficult to extinguish, and the safety board has investigated the risks of battery fires for more than a decade.
An electronic system that activates the car’s air bags was heavily damaged. The device can provide information on the speed, acceleration, seat belt status and other data. The NTSB has taken the device to its Washington laboratory in an attempt to extract the data.
Tesla CEO Elon Musk and Moravy did not respond to emails.
The NTSB said it will continue to analyze the crash dynamics, including “postmortem toxicology test results, seat belt use, occupant egress, and electric vehicle fires.”