There are still a lot of unanswered questions about the deadly crash of a Tesla Model S near Houston on April 17, including whether Tesla’s driver assistance system, Autopilot, had any role and whether anyone was in the driver’s seat when the crash occurred. A new report from the local fire marshal’s office fills in a few more of the missing details.
The report, put together an investigator from the Harris County Fire Marshal’s Office, Chris Johnson, concludes that the fire was accidental but did not find a specific cause, except to say that it was definitely related to the collision with a tree. And that the fire started somewhere near the front.
As the report puts it:
Multiple fire patterns produced by both the movement and intensity of the fire indicate that the fire originated from the vehicle`s power distribution system and related components located at the front end of the vehicle. Fire patterns present on the frame of the vehicle indicate that fire developed at the front of the vehicle and spread rearward through the passenger compartment with the availability of fuel sources.
Any extensive damage to the battery, the power distribution systems, or the systems associated with battery cell temperature regulation can result in electrical arcing and/or thermal runaway of the lithium-ion cells, which are both competent sources of ignition. The vehicle sustained a significant front-end collision which damaged one, or many of these systems, leading to the development of fire within the vehicle. I considered several possible ignition scenarios involving specific vehicle component(s) and system(s). I did not determine the specific vehicle component(s) or system(s) that provided the first heat source. I did rule out any scenario not specifically related to the motor vehicle collision causing ignition of the vehicle and immediate or subsequently resulting battery fire.
The report catalogs all of the damage in great detail. Here’s the exterior:
The vehicle is a four-door 2019 Tesla model S which is grey in color. The vehicle had extensive fire damage across all exterior surfaces. The vehicle`s hood, front doors, front body panels, forward support pillars, trunk, and roof were completely destroyed. Melted metallic material was present on the base of the vehicle and some of the ground beneath the front half of the vehicle. The rear doors of the vehicle were partially destroyed, with more progressive damage towards the front of the vehicle. The surviving portions of the rear doors had partially melted paint on their exterior. There were signs of extensive mechanical damage caused by a front-end collision, and the front end of the vehicle was in direct contact with the trunk of a large tree. A large debris field was present within the wooded area to the west of the vehicle which consisted of exterior trim parts and mechanical components. Both a-and c-pillars of the vehicle were destroyed by fire. The b-pillars of the vehicle were still in place and exhibited oxidation across all surfaces. The rear two wheels and tires were still with the vehicle. The front left wheel appeared to have separated from the suspension/steering assembly and folded inward towards the engine compartment. The tire of this wheel was melted due to heat exposure. The front right wheel separated from the vehicle entirely.
And the interior:
The interior of the vehicle is consistent to a standard four-door sedan type configuration, consisting of two front seats, and three rear seats. The interior of the vehicle had extensive fire damage. The majority of the combustible materials across the entire space, including trim material, headliner, and upholstery was completely destroyed by fire. The majority of the floor area was covered in melted material. The frames of both the front and rear seats were visible due to extensive fire damage.
On the question of whether there was anyone in the driver’s seat, the report is pretty clear: There was not, at least after the crash. The report identifies Everette Talbot as the victim seated in the front passenger seat, while William Varner was found in the left rear passenger seat.
Decedent 1 was located in a seated position, a few inches forward of the front right (passenger) seat. Decedent 1`s upper torso was in a forward-leaning position, with both arms rolled forward.
Decedent 2 was located in a seated position within the rear left (passenger) seat. Decedent 2`s upper torso was in a rear-leaning position, with both arms rolled back and in a pugilistic pose.
That would seem to be good evidence that there was no one in the driver’s seat at the time of the crash, but Tesla has insisted in recent days that it thinks there was someone in the driver’s seat before the crash, citing a deformed steering wheel.
The distinction is meaningful because if there was no one in the driver’s seat that might lead a lot of people to believe that Tesla’s Autopilot safeguards aren’t up to snuff, as Consumer Reports reported last week.
Not only does Tesla say there was someone in the driver’s seat, it also disputes that Autopilot was on at all, based on data it had “so far.” Or at least it did. On Monday, a Tesla vice president said that one Autopilot feature, adaptive cruise control, was engaged.
In any case, we may get clarity on the matter sooner rather than later, as Reuters reported Wednesday that the National Transportation Safety Board was looking to get a preliminary report on the crash out quicker than usual.
“A preliminary report typically comes out in a month, but we are working hard to get it out as soon as possible because we recognize there is this confusion out there,” Kristin Poland, Deputy Director at National Transportation Safety Board, said in an interview with Reuters.
She declined to discuss any findings so far, saying that the probe is under way.
“We have a very, very experienced investigators that are doing this. It is not like the first time out,” the veteran NTSB official said.
You can read the full fire marshal’s report below: