Material new details have emerged in the case of a Tesla accident from 2018, where a driver smashed into the back of a fire truck in Southern California. That driver is now said to have been "looking down" at "what appeared to be a mobile phone" while the car's Autopilot was engaged, according to Bloomberg.
The NTSB - currently in the middle of examining several Tesla accidents involving Autopilot - revealed in preliminary reports on Tuesday that a witness statement from the January collision corroborated this conclusion, which was also supported by additional data released by investigators.
At the time, the driver had told investigators that he wasn't using his phone and was looking forward, but could have been holding "a coffee or a bagel".
But the driver had engaged Autopilot, which had been active for 13 minutes and 48 seconds prior to the accident. The driver's hands were not on the wheel for the "majority of the time" it was engaged, according to Tesla data provided to the NTSB.
The NTSB plans on announcing the probable cause of the accident on Wednesday.
Public docket opened Tuesday, for investigation of Jan. 22, 2018, Culver City, California, highway crash involving a Tesla & Culver City Fire Dept. fire truck; https://t.co/UbgF0ll9dA. Final accident brief, including probable cause, slated to publish Sept. 4, 2019.— NTSB_Newsroom (@NTSB_Newsroom) September 3, 2019
Despite the driver being uninjured, the NTSB is investigating the safety implications of the "growing use of vehicle automation" (or in Tesla's case, lack thereof). It's also studying how Tesla's batteries have caught fire after some severe impacts.
A witness at the time of the crash said the Tesla sped into the back of the fire truck without braking:
“I could see the driver and I saw his head leaned far forward as he appeared to be looking down at a cell phone or other device he was holding in his left hand,” according to the witness’s written statement released by NTSB. “The driver’s positioning struck me as odd and concerning because it was clear to me he was very focused on his phone and wasn’t watching the road ahead at all, even though he was quickly approaching the stopped fire engine.”
The NTSB had found no indication that the driver was texting or making a call at the time. The phone may have been used for alternate purposes, however. The driver claims he was following a large truck or SUV that was impairing his vision. When the truck moved out of the way, he claimed he didn't have enough time to recognize the fire truck and get out of the way.
We documented the details of the crash when it happened, stating that at the time, it was unknown if the Autopilot feature was engaged.
There have now been at least 3 fatal accidents involving Autopilot that we know about. We have long wondered how long the NTSB and the NHTSA are going to allow this Autopilot farce to continue - how many more accidents will need to happen? How many more people will have to die?
We may get more answers on Wednesday.