Tesla owner seen on video entering driver's seat before fiery crash in The Woodlands, NTSB says

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Monday, May 10, 2021
Tesla owner seen in driver's seat before fiery crash, NTSB says
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Despite law enforcement insisting that no one was behind the wheel, a new report is backing the carmaker's dispute to those claims.

THE WOODLANDS, Texas (KTRK) -- While law enforcement insists no one was in the driver's seat of a fiery Tesla crash that killed two people in The Woodlands, preliminary findings from federal transportation investigators stated the vehicle's owner was seen taking the driver's seat moments before taking off.

In a preliminary report issued Monday by the National Transportation Safety Board, findings also stated the "Autosteer" feature in the Model S P100D was not available on the part of the roadway where the crash happened.

The NTSB explained the vehicle was equipped with "Autopilot," which requires the use of "Traffic Aware Cruise Control" and "Autosteer."

In recent weeks, the carmaker's CEO Elon Musk disputed claims of the autopilot feature being activated when the crash happened, something that the Harris County Precinct 4 Constable's Office said in the immediate aftermath.

The 59-year-old owner and a 69-year-old passenger, both identified as Dr. William Varner and Everett Talbot, respectively, died in the April 17 incident.

"According to the report the crash trip began at the owner's residence. Footage from the owner's home security cameras show the owner entering the driver's seat and the passenger entering the front passenger seat," the NTSB stated. "The video also shows the car slowly entering the roadway and then accelerating down the road away from the camera and out of sight."

The federal agency continued, "Based on examination of the accident scene investigators have determined the car traveled 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 car's restraint control module - which can record data related to vehicle speed, seat belt status, acceleration and airbag deployment - was damaged but recovered by NTSB for evaluation. The steering wheel was also shipped to the NTSB lab for analysis.

The NTSB said its investigation is ongoing.

Full document: NTSB's preliminary report on Tesla crash from April 17, 2021. (If you're viewing this on a mobile device, view the report here.)

In the wake of the crash last month, a local Tesla club told Eyewitness News about the driving assistance technology that comes with these cars, and those owners said the vehicle will not even start if no one is in the driver's seat.

"You know, you're warned when you pick up your Tesla that this is just a driving assistance system. It's not, it doesn't drive yourself yet," local Tesla owner Stephen Pace said. "That's the goal that eventually they will be able to drive themselves, but today it warns you if you don't touch your steering wheel constantly. It checks for weight in the seat, so it won't just start. So there's many safety protocols built into this system."