By Rebecca Elliott 

Federal safety officials have raised doubts that a fatal April crash of a Tesla Inc. car involved the vehicle's advanced driver-assistance system.

The National Transportation Safety Board issued a preliminary report Monday that laid out some of the early evidence it has gathered, while stopping short of drawing conclusions about what caused the crash.

Tests at the crash site north of Houston using a representative vehicle showed that one of the features that would have been needed to use Tesla's driver-assistance system, known as Autopilot, wasn't available in that area, the agency said.

Local officials in Texas had said that one of the two men riding in the car was found in the front passenger's seat and the other in the back seat. The local constable's office said, based on its early investigation, that it was highly likely the vehicle didn't have anyone in the driver's seat at the time of the crash, spurring questions about how that may have unfolded. The early assessment left questions about whether or how the vehicle could have been operating without anyone in the driver's seat. Both men died in the crash.

The NTSB said the vehicle owner's home-security system showed the owner entering the driver's seat of the Model S sedan and the other person entering the front passenger's seat. The NTSB report didn't address when the owner eventually found dead in the back seat moved within the vehicle.

The vehicle traveled about 550 feet before driving over a curb, hitting a drainage culvert, a raised manhole and, eventually, a tree, damaging the front of the vehicle's lithium-ion battery case, the NTSB said.

The agency said that the resulting fire destroyed the vehicle and damaged a module that can record data tied to information such as vehicle speed, air-bag deployment and whether seat belts were buckled. The NTSB said it had taken the device to a lab for further analysis. Another onboard storage device that could yield clues about what happened was destroyed by the fire, the NTSB said.

The initial report echoes statements from Tesla last month about the crash. A Tesla executive said during an earnings call that the company had conducted a study along with authorities in which it tried to replicate the likely crash scenario. The company said that a driver-assistance feature that helps with steering didn't engage in the test, while another feature, adaptive cruise control, only activated when a driver was buckled in and traveling at above 5 miles per hour.

The executive also said the car's steering wheel was found to be deformed, "leading to the likelihood that someone was in the driver's seat at the time of the crash." He didn't provide details about how the company came to that conclusion. All the seat belts, post crash, were found to be unbuckled, he said.

Tesla didn't immediately respond to a request for comment on the NTSB's preliminary report. Soon after the crash, Tesla Chief Executive Elon Musk tweeted, " Data logs recovered so far show Autopilot was not enabled."

The NTSB said it was continuing to collect data on the crash, including the dynamics of the incident and the postmortem toxicology test results. "All aspects of the crash remain under investigation," it said, adding it planned to issue a final report with safety recommendations to prevent similar crashes.

The NTSB has said its probe also would examine the vehicle fire that took hours to completely extinguish.

Write to Rebecca Elliott at rebecca.elliott@wsj.com

 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

May 10, 2021 17:36 ET (21:36 GMT)

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