Tesla claims deadly Texas car crash may have had passenger behind the wheel
Carmaker has yet to recover data from the vehicle's SD card at the time of impact
Tesla CEO Elon Musk doubled down Monday on his previous claim that the electric vehicle's Autopilot feature did not play a role in a fatal crash in Texas earlier this month that killed two people.
Musk reiterated his criticism of media reports surrounding the crash during the company's first-quarter earnings call, labeling the stories as "extremely deceptive" and "totally false." He added that any journalists suggesting that Autopilot played a role should be "ashamed of themselves."
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Lars Moravy, Tesla vice president of vehicle engineering, told analysts on the earnings call that representatives from the company were able to inspect the crash along with local law enforcement and federal investigators from National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).
"What we've learned from that effort was that autosteer did not and could not engage on the road condition as it was designed," Moravy said. "Our adaptive cruise control only engaged when the driver was buckled and above five miles per hour and it only accelerated to 30 miles per hour over the distance before the car crashed. Adaptive cruise control disengaged the car slowly to complete the stop when the driver's seat belt was unbuckled."
Further investigation of the vehicle and the accident found that the steering wheel was "deformed," which Moravy said points to "the likelihood that someone was in the driver's seat at the time of the crash." He added that all seat belts post-crash were found to be unbuckled.
Tesla said it has so far been unable to recover data from the vehicle's SD card at the time of impact. Tesla models allow for these secure digital memory cards to use the cameras installed in the car to continuously record what is happening on the road while driving, as well as space around the vehicle when Sentry Mode is activated.
"Local authorities are working on doing that and we await their report," Moravy added. "We continue to hold safety in a high regard and look to improve our products in the future through this kind of data and other information from the field."
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Tesla's claim contradicts previous comments made by Mark Herman, constable for Harris County Precinct 4.
Herman told KHOU, the CBS affiliated TV station in Houston, that police "are 100 percent certain that no one was in the driver’s seat," noting the two victims were found in the passenger and back seat.
According to the New York Times, Herman also said that minutes before the crash, the wives of the two men watched them leave in the Tesla after the husbands said they wanted to go for a drive and were talking about the vehicle’s Autopilot feature.
A test drive of a Tesla Model Y by Consumer Reports engineers found that Autopilot can still run regardless of whether a passenger is in the driver seat.
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Earlier this month, Tesla released its accident data for the first quarter of 2021. Musk claimed that Tesla vehicles with Autopilot engaged are now approaching a 10 times lower chance of an accident than the average vehicle.
In the first quarter of 2021, the company registered one accident for every 4.19 million miles driven with Autopilot engaged. For those driving without Autopilot but with the Tesla's active safety features, the company registered one accident for every 2.05 million miles driven. As for those driving without Autopilot or active safety features, the company registered one accident for every 978,000 miles driven.
In comparison, the most recent data from the National Highway Transportation Security Administration finds that there is an automobile crash in the United States every 484,000 miles.
Tesla warns consumers that while its Autopilot and Full Self-Driving Capability features are designed to become more capable over time, they do not make the vehicle autonomous, and are intended for use with a fully attentive drive who has their hands on the wheel and is prepared to take over at any moment.
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Tesla noted in its earnings release that it is working on developing a "vision-only system," which it claims is "ultimately all that is needed for full autonomy."
"Our AI-based software architecture has been increasingly reliant on cameras, to the point where radar is becoming unnecessary earlier than expected," the company wrote. As a result, the company said its Full Self Driving (FSD) team "is fully focused on evolving to a vision-based autonomous system and we are nearly ready to switch the US market to Tesla Vision."
Musk said on the earnings call that removing the vehicle's radar system is "finally getting rid of one of the last crutches" to completing its autonomous driving system, which will utilize eight cameras.
"Radar was really, it was making up for some of the shortfalls of vision but this is not good. You actually just need vision to work," Musk said. "When vision works, it works better than the best human. It's like having eyes in the back your head, the side of your head and has three eyes of different focal distances looking forward and processing it at a speed that is superhuman."
Musk believes Tesla's self-driving car technology will help create a car that is "dramatically safer" than the average vehicle.
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Despite the safety concerns and "really severe supply chain issues," Tesla hit a new record of 184,877 vehicle deliveries in the first quarter.
The company also reported record net income of $438 million, or 39 cents per share, compared with $16 million, or 2 cents a share, a year ago. Adjusted for one-time items, the company earned 93 cents per share. Total revenue grew 74% year-over-year to $10.3 billion, with about $518 million in automotive revenue coming from sales of regulatory credits. Both top and bottom line exceeded analyst estimates.
Tesla expects the first deliveries of its latest Model S to begin "very shortly" and noted that Model Y production in Shanghai and Fremont, California continues to ramp up. The company also noted that its making progress on its two new factories in Berlin and Texas, which remain on track to start vehicle production and deliveries later this year. Tesla Semi deliveries will also begin in 2021.
Looking ahead, the company expects 50% average growth in vehicle deliveries in 2021 and beyond.
Tesla stock fell as much as 3% in after-hours trading following company's earnings announcement.