Last Friday, on April 16, William Varner and his best friend went for a quick spin in a 2019 Tesla Model S at 11 pm. At 11:25 pm, the car crashed into a tree and caught fire. Both men died, but neither was behind the steering wheel, according to the police report. This is what made NHTSA and NTSB launch an investigation to discover what caused the crash – and if Autopilot, FSD, or Smart Summon were involved.
The information came from Harris County Precinct 4 Constable Mark Herman. He was at the scene and told Click2Houston there was no one in the driver’s seat. The brother-in-law of one of the victims told the outlet the owner backed out of the driveway and may have hopped in the back seat a few hundred yards down the road.
That suggests he knows this man was in the back seat instead of in the driver’s seat, as he should be. It is not clear who was the owner and driver of the vehicle. What the federal agencies have to find out now is: how did the car move with no one at the steering wheel?
Unlike other companies testing autonomous technologies, Tesla offers Autopilot, Smart Summon, and FSD as beta software and allows regular customers to test them on public roads. At least that was the case for Smart Summon.
Before publishing this article, we checked Tesla’s page for Autopilot and FSD, and it was not online, presenting a 404 error. Checking its cached version, the page shows Smart Summon was not presented as beta software anymore.
For regulators, Tesla states Autopilot and FSD are Level 2 driver’s assistance systems. For customers, Tesla’s cached page also stresses they do not make the car autonomous. Critics claim their names suggest otherwise.
NTSB has repeatedly warned that Tesla did not adequately inform its customers Autopilot is a Level 2 driver’s assistance system. According to the safety board, fatal crashes such as the one that killed Walter Huang in March 2018 were due to overreliance on the system.
InsideEVs talked to NTSB, and the safety board said it sent two investigators to Texas on April 19. They will “focus on the vehicle’s operation and the post-crash fire.” According to what Palmer Buck told Houston Chronicle, it is not true that the Model S burned for four hours, as the brother-in-law of one of the victims told Click2Houston.
The fire chief for The Woodlands Township Fire Department said firefighters were called due to a fire in the woods. It was only after they arrived that they saw the Model S was involved. Buck said the fire was controlled “within two to three minutes, enough to see the vehicle had occupants.” Water was then used just to keep the battery pack cool.
Elon Musk broke the silence about the crash on 19 April, after multiple media outlets tried to talk to Tesla about the circumstances. He commented on a tweet that tried to exempt Autopilot from any connection with the fatal wreck.
According to the Tesla CEO, Autopilot was not engaged, the car did not have FSD, and Autopilot would require lane lines, which were lacking on the road near the crash. He did not mention Smart Summon. Missy Cummings, a Duke University researcher, said it was not necessarily the case:
Sergio Rodriguez, a Tesla Model X owner, posted a video confirming he could engage Autopilot even without lane lines.
According to Reuters, Texas police will now serve search warrants to Tesla to have access to crash data. Although they already know who owned the Model S and whether the driver was in the back seat or the front passenger seat, there's no answer yet to the most pressing question: how did the car move without a driver? NTSB and NHTSA plan to help clarify that.