One of the victims of a fatal Tesla crash has been named as a 59-year-old anesthesiologist who friends say wanted to test his Model S autopilot feature when he crashed at speed into a tree, with no one in the driver’s seat, on Saturday night in an accident that has triggered two federal safety investigations and raised serious questions over Tesla’s safety.
Dr. Will T. Varner died on Saturday after his Model S crashed into trees just a few hundred yards from his $2million home in the gated community of Carlton Woods Creekside. Dr. Varner was an anesthesiology specialist who worked at Memorial Hermann – Texas Medical Center.
He was driving with a 69-year-old friend at it was 11.25pm.
Shortly after driving out of his driveway on Saturday, the car veered off of the quiet cul-de-sac and plowed into trees then caught fire. It took firefighters four hours to put out the blaze because the battery on the electric vehicle kept reigniting. Cops say they even had to phone Tesla to ask them how to put the fire out.
When they eventually put the flames out, they found Varner in the backseat and the other man, who is yet to be identified, in the passenger seat.
Now there are serious questions over how the car was able to move, let alone at speed, when no one was in the driver’s seat.
Harris County Constable Precinct 4 said immediately that there was no one driving the car when it crashed, which led to speculation that the pair had engaged the car’s autopilot feature.
Tesla CEO Elon Musk however insisted on Monday night that data logs show they had not engaged autopilot, nor had the driver bought the more advanced self-driving feature, Full Self-Driving Capability.
‘Data logs recovered so far show Autopilot was not enabled & this car did not purchase FSD. Moreover, standard Autopilot would require lane lines to turn on, which this street did not have,’ Musk tweeted.
To engage Tesla’s autopilot, the car must think someone is at the wheel by detecting the weight of their hands on the steering wheel. If it doesn’t, it’ll stop but it can take up to 30 seconds for it to do so.
The second question is whether or not the men were able to engage autopilot when there are no markings on the private road they were on. Autopilot must detect road markings before it can be enabled, according to Tesla.
Thirdly, how – if autopilot was engaged – did the car reach a speed fast enough to crash at the pace police say the men did?
Autopilot, according to Tesla, will never go above the speed limit and on the road in question, that limit is 35mph. Investigators have not said how fast the car was going but they have said it was at considerable speed.
Tesla’s shares dipped by 3.4 percent on Monday after the crash.
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This was what was left of the Tesla Model S after the fiery crash on Saturday in Spring, Texas
The men drove from Varner’s home, at the end of the cul-de-sac, and only made it a few hundred feet before crashing into trees
Musk said on Twitter on Monday night that data logs showed Autopilot was not enabled on the car
Police say that Musk’s tweet claiming to have recovered data from the car was the first they’ve heard of it,.
police who are investigating the crash had heard of it.
‘If he is tweeting that out, if he has already pulled the data, he hasn’t told us that.
‘We will eagerly wait for that data,’ Mark Herman, Harris County Constable Precinct 4 said.
He says witnesses have told him that the pair were driving on autopilot.
‘We have witness statements from people that said they left to test drive the vehicle without a driver and to show the friend how it can drive itself,’ he said.
Tesla’s shares dipped by 3.4 percent on Monday after the crash
It’s not clear how Musk’s claims stack up against those of the local police, whose investigators said they were ‘99.9 percent sure’ there was no one behind the wheel of the car. Three other people have died in Tesla autopilot-related incidents.
The two men on Sunday were driving along Hammock Dunes Place in Spring, Texas, a street that is just 1,000ft long in a gated community where the average house price on the street is more than $2million.
Tesla lovers are baffled by the crash because to engage autopilot, the $80,000 car must be able to identify clear road markings (which this street does not have). The men were also driving at night, at 11.25pm.
After they plowed into a tree just a few hundred yards from the house they left, the vehicle caught fire and for four hours, firefighters battled the blaze while the victims’ relatives watched on in horror.
They had to call the carmaker and ask how to stop the battery from reigniting. In the end, they used 32,000 gallons of water but the two men were incinerated.
The car did not turn along with the bend in the road and instead plowed straight into trees then caught fire
Police say that the battery in the vehicle kept catching fire which made it impossible for them to put it out for hours
Now, there are serious questions over how the men were able to get as far as they did when no one was in the driver’s seat.
If [Musk] is tweeting that out, if he has already pulled the data, he hasn’t told us that. We will eagerly wait for that data,
Mark Herman, Harris County Constable Precinct 4
Tesla insists that to engage autopilot, a person must have their hands on the steering wheel at all times, ready to take over if the automated systems fail.
If no weight is detected on the steering wheel, the car sends the driver an alert reminding them of the rule, but it doesn’t necessarily bring it to a stop – at least not right away.
In some videos posted by car enthusiasts, it takes two minutes for it to even detect that no one has their hands on the wheel.
In one from 2019, it took the two minutes to detect no one was behind the wheel. The car then sends the driver an on-screen prompt, then it starts beeping loudly before finally slowing down.
In the 2019 video, it took 40 seconds from the first prompt for the car to stop completely.
It’s unclear how fast the men in the crash were driving but detectives say it was at considerable speed.
Tesla will stop driving on autopilot if it cannot detect a person’s hands on the wheel. To get around it, people have been doing this – putting an item on the wheel or lodging it there – to trick it
Others have balanced water bottles on the steering wheels or attached them in drink holders to trick the car (left) or attached weighted bangles to it (right)
Other drivers balanced water bottles on the steering wheel to make the car think they were still engaged with it
This is what the driver is told via the screen in the car if, after 30 seconds or so, no hands are detected on the wheel. The car makes a loud beeping noise then it starts to slow down and comes to a stop but it can take half-a-minute to do so
Elon Musk said on Saturday, just hours before the crash, that the cars were becoming more safe
Both the NTSB (National transport Safety Board) and the NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) are investigating the crash.
The NHTSA said in a statement: ‘We are actively engaged with local law enforcement and Tesla to learn more about the details of the crash and will take appropriate steps when we have more information.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said on Twitter it had dispatched two investigators to the scene, who ‘will focus on the vehicle’s operation and the post-crash fire.
‘NTSB investigators will arrive in the area later this afternoon.’
Tesla has not commented.
On its website, it is vague about what exactly happens if no one is at the wheel when autopilot is engaged.
‘Before enabling Autopilot, the driver first needs to agree to “keep your hands on the steering wheel at all times” and to always “maintain control and responsibility for your vehicle.”
‘Subsequently, every time the driver engages Autopilot, they are shown a visual reminder to “keep your hands on the wheel,”‘ it says.
Saturday’s crash happened hours after Elon Musk tweeted that the autopilot function was becoming ‘ten times safer’.
On YouTube, car enthusiasts have been sharing videos for years about how to trick the steering systems with oranges, weighted bangles or just by simply giving the wheel a nudge.
Some have wedged water bottles in the steering wheel to trick it too. After the crash, Tesla’s stock plummeted by 3.32 percent on Monday.
Hours before Saturday’s crash, Musk tweeted: ‘Tesla with Autopilot engaged now approaching 10 times lower chance of accident than average vehicle.’