On May 4, Nadine Chalmers was in downtown Columbus for a conference, riding in a car pulling out of a parking lot just outside the Greater Columbus Convention Center. The car stopped on Vine Street, at a T intersection with the convention center directly in front of her, waiting to turn right onto North High Street.
Then, with no warning, a car shot past, narrowly missing them, at an incredible speed. Without braking, swerving, or taking any evasive action, the car flew into the convention center.
“We just sat there in shock and called 911,” Chalmers told Motherboard. “We figured dozens of people were probably hurt in the building.” They were also worried it was part of a terrorist attack, with the driver perhaps trying to blow up the building, because of the seemingly intentional nature of the crash.
“The car went in with such speed, it was clear it wasn’t just a guy who missed his turn or something,” Chalmers said.
Miraculously, the driver didn’t hit anyone inside the convention center with his Tesla; the car happened to strike a support beam that stopped its progress rather than flying into the lobby or striking a nearby elevator shaft.
But, three weeks after the crash, there are still many questions around this potentially catastrophic incident. How did this happen? Was there a mechanical defect with the car? Was Tesla’s notorious software malfunctioning? Was the driver doing something far more egregious than failing to control the vehicle? It seems police departments and government agencies have all given up on trying to figure any of that out.
A spokesperson for the Columbus police department said they had no additional information beyond the crash report and no investigation is taking place. Eric Weiss, a spokesperson for the National Transportation Safety Board, a federal agency that mostly investigates plane, helicopter, and train crashes but sometimes highway crashes too, told Motherboard the agency “made initial inquiries about the circumstances of the crash, but we never said we were investigating.” The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, part of the Department of Transportation, ostensibly has an investigative team but rarely conducts any such investigations (it has published five crash investigation reports in 2022 so far). A NHTSA spokesperson told Motherboard it did not send a team to investigate the crash.
What makes the lack of investigation additionally perplexing is the lack of a coherent narrative for what happened. There is, at the moment, no plausible evidence-based idea of what the hell happened here. Neither the driver of the Tesla—who was identified in the police report—nor the taxi company that owned the Tesla responded to Motherboard’s requests for comment.
The official story, as laid out by the police report, gives a conflicting narrative. The accident report, which Motherboard obtained from the Columbus police, says the driver “claimed that he lost control of his brakes on SR 315 and exited onto Neil Ave.” He told police the car stayed “at a steady speed of 70 mph” before crashing into the convention center. Three witnesses the police interviewed said “it appeared he tried to speed up in order to make the yellow traffic light.” The driver was not tested for drug or alcohol impairment, according to the report, and was cited for failure to control the vehicle, punishable by a fine up to $150.
If there was something wrong with the car that prevented the driver from braking before crashing into a building, that is well within NHTSA’s jurisdiction to investigate, as the agency that regulates manufacturer defects. If the driver did in fact gun it to make a yellow light only to plow into a building, as witnesses told police, a police investigation into charges far more significant than a minor traffic violation seems warranted.
Teslas are famously fast, with mass production vehicle acceleration times of 0-60 pushing three or four seconds depending on the model. The rapid acceleration is one of the car’s many selling points. It is certainly possible that the driver had some kind of physical or mental malfunction, pressed the wrong pedal, and with the instant acceleration EVs offer, lost control and plowed into the building. This, too, might be worthy of an investigation, since the safety implications of mass-deployed rapid acceleration EVs are poorly understood.
Chalmers said she wishes the authorities would find out what actually happened. “I just want them to investigate whatever human or mechanical failure occurred so that this Tesla flew into the building at this rate of speed,” she said. “I’m just haunted by, what if there had been a city bus in the T intersection? What if there had been pedestrians? This could have been a situation where 10, 20 people were killed. I just want to find out what happened to make sure it will never happen again.”
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