Tesla fires back at NTSB over the investigation into fatal Autopilot crash, says it will complain to Congress

  • Disparities have emerged in a dispute between Tesla and the NTSB over the investigation of a fatal Autopilot crash in March.
  • It’s unclear whether Tesla ended its involvement with the investigation or was removed.
  • The NTSB has objected to Tesla revealing information about the crash, a violation of its “party agreement” with the agency.
  • Tesla CEO Elon Musk and NTSB chairman Robert Sumwalt had previously spoken about Tesla’s obligation to abide by the agreement rules.

A dispute has developed this week between Tesla and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) over an investigation into a fatal crash involving the carmaker’s Autopilot technology.

The accident occurred near Mountain View, CA, last month and led to the death of Walter Huang, whose Tesla Model X crashed into a freeway barrier.

The NTSB’s chairman, Robert Sumwalt, sent a letter dated April 12 to Tesla CEO Elon Musk “memorializing a conversation” between Musk, NTSB managing director Dennis Jones, and Sumwalt in which the agency informed Tesla that it was revoking Tesla’s party status in the investigation of the March 26 crash.

“It is unfortunate that Tesla, by its actions, did not abide by the party agreement,” Sumwalt said in an NTSB news release.

“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.”

On Wednesday evening, Tesla released a statement that it “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, adding that “[w]e 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.”

Sumwalt’s letter confirmed that last week, he and Musk had discussed Tesla’s party status and the release of investigation information in a blog post. The NTSB had rebuked Tesla for its actions, and according to Sumwalt, Musk had implicitly agreed that Tesla would adhere to investigation rules going forward.

The NTSB also addressed the carmaker’s complaint that the party agreement rules compromises public safety. The agency said that there is nothing in the agreement that prohibits the company from taking “swift and effective measures to counter a threat to public safety.”

After the NTSB published its statement, Tesla fired back claiming that the agency doesn’t even follow its own rules.

“It’s been clear in our conversations with the NTSB that they’re more concerned with press headlines than actually promoting safety,” Tesla said in a statement Thursday.

“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 said in the statement.

The NTSB said that its investigation can take 12-24 months to complete and that “[w]hile rare, the NTSB has revoked party status in other investigations.”

You can read the full statement from Tesla in response to the NTSB below:

Last week, in a conversation with the NTSB, we were told that if we made additional statements before their 12-24 month investigative process is complete, we would no longer be a party to the investigation agreement. On Tuesday, we chose to withdraw from the agreement and issued a statement to correct misleading claims that had been made about Autopilot – claims which made it seem as though Autopilot creates safety problems when the opposite is true. In the US, there is one automotive fatality every 86 million miles across all vehicles. For Tesla, there is one fatality, including known pedestrian fatalities, every 320 million miles in vehicles equipped with Autopilot hardware. If you are driving a Tesla equipped with Autopilot hardware, you are 3.7 times less likely to be involved in a fatal accident and this continues to improve.

It’s been clear in our conversations with the NTSB that they’re more concerned with press headlines than actually promoting safety. 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. We will also be issuing 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. Perhaps there is a sound rationale for this, but we cannot imagine what that could possibly be.

Something the public may not be aware of is that the NTSB is not a regulatory body, it is an advisory body. The regulatory body for the automotive industry in the US is the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) with whom we have a strong and positive relationship. After doing a comprehensive study, NHTSA found that even the early version of Tesla Autopilot resulted in 40% fewer crashes. Autopilot has improved substantially since then.

When tested by NHTSA, Model S and Model X each received five stars not only overall but in every sub-category. This was the only time an SUV had ever scored that well. Moreover, of all the cars that NHTSA has ever tested, Model S and Model X scored as the two cars with the lowest probability of injury. There is no company that cares more about safety and the evidence speaks for itself.

Read more about the fatal Tesla Model X crash:

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