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Tesla booted from investigation into fatal Autopilot crash

Tesla booted from investigation into fatal Autopilot crash


The NTSB says Tesla is oversharing; the company says it’s going to file a complaint with Congress

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Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

Tesla has been removed from the National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation into a fatal Autopilot accident that happened in March, the agency announced today. The NTSB says it took the action because Tesla had released “investigative information before it was vetted and confirmed by” the agency. The news was first reported by Bloomberg.

“Such releases of incomplete information often lead to speculation and incorrect assumptions about the probable cause of a crash, which does a disservice to the investigative process and the traveling public,” the agency writes.

The NTSB’s account contradicts Tesla’s version of the story. In a statement, the automaker says it decided to remove itself from the investigation on Tuesday because of the NTSB was restricting it from sharing information before the probe ends. The company also accuses the NTSB of being duplicitous, arguing that the agency has released statements about the crash at the same time that it told Tesla not to.

“It’s been clear in our conversations with the NTSB that they’re more concerned with press headlines than actually promoting safety,” a spokesperson for the company says. “Among other things, they repeatedly released partial bits of incomplete information to the media in violation of their own rules, at the same time that they were trying to prevent us from telling all the facts. We don’t believe this is right and we will be making an official complaint to Congress.”

The company also said it will issue “a Freedom Of Information Act request to understand the reasoning behind their focus on the safest cars in America while they ignore the cars that are the least safe.”

Tesla claims it removed itself from the investigation because the NTSB’s privacy agreement was “unacceptable”

The deadly accident took place on the morning of March 23rd near Mountain View, California. Walter Huang was driving his Tesla Model X southbound on California Route 101 when he crashed headlong into a divider that separates the left-most lane from an offramp.

The company confirmed one week later that Huang was using Autopilot during the crash, and that the data recorded showed that his hands were not detected on the wheel in the six seconds before the impact. Tesla also said that the car’s systems had warned Huang a number of times to retake control from Autopilot earlier in the drive.

Days later, a spokesperson for the NTSB said the agency was “unhappy” that Tesla released information about the investigation, since it was still in its early stages. The tension seemed to have settled when the NTSB said this week that its chairman had a “constructive conversation” with Tesla CEO Elon Musk.

Tesla continued to release statements about the crash, saying Tuesday that “according to the family, Mr. Huang was well aware that Autopilot was not perfect and, specifically, he told them it was not reliable in that exact location, yet he nonetheless engaged Autopilot at that location.” On Wednesday, the company said that “the only way for this accident to have occurred is if Mr. Huang wasn’t paying attention to the road, despite the car providing multiple warnings to do so.” Later in the day, the company it said it was removing itself from the “party agreement” with the NTSB.

“Tesla withdrew from the party agreement with the NTSB because it requires that we not release information about Autopilot to the public, a requirement which we believe fundamentally affects public safety negatively,” the company said at the time. “We believe in transparency, so an agreement that prevents public release of information for over a year is unacceptable. Even though we won’t be a formal party, we will continue to provide technical assistance to the NTSB.”

NTSB investigations are usually methodical affairs that rely on help from the manufacturers of the vehicles involved. For example, it took the NTSB two months to issue a preliminary report into the death of Joshua Brown, who was killed in May 2016 while using Tesla’s Autopilot. That investigation wasn’t fully completed until the fall of 2017. The NTSB said today that probes “generally take 12 to 24 months to complete,” and as Bloomberg pointed out, the agency has previously removed companies for making unauthorized statements.

“It is unfortunate that Tesla, by its actions, did not abide by the party agreement,” NTSB chairman Robert Sumwalt said in today’s statement. “We decided to revoke Tesla’s party status and informed Mr. Musk in a phone call last evening and via letter today. While we understand the demand for information that parties face during an NTSB investigation, uncoordinated releases of incomplete information do not further transportation safety or serve the public interest.”

The NTSB said Tesla is still a party in two other ongoing investigations into non-fatal accidents: one from January 22nd, 2018 involving Autopilot, and one from last summer involving a battery fire.

The full letter sent to Musk from the NTSB can be seen here:

NTSB Letter to Tesla by Anonymous ohKLS5K on Scribd

Update April 12th, 4:15PM ET: Added new statement from Tesla in response to being removed from the investigation.