Tesla is dropped from National Traffic Safety Board investigation of fatal crash

The car maker was removed from the investigation panel because it was found to have released information prematurely

PUBLISHED : Friday, 13 April, 2018, 5:10am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 03 July, 2018, 8:22pm

Electric car maker Tesla Inc has been dropped by federal safety investigators from a group that is investigating a fatal crash involving an SUV operating with the company’s Autopilot system.

The National Transportation Safety Board said Thursday it removed Tesla as a party to the investigation into last month’s crash in California after the company prematurely made information public.

“Tesla violated the party agreement by releasing investigative information before it was vetted and confirmed by the NTSB,” the agency said in a statement. “Such releases of incomplete information often lead to speculation and incorrect assumptions about the probable cause of a crash.”

Removing a party to an investigation is rare but has previously occurred, according to the agency. Companies and other organizations can become parties in a probe because they can give technical help and share sensitive information.

A Tesla spokeswoman had no immediate comment.

The move apparently means that the safety board and Tesla will no longer share information about the March 23 crash of a Tesla Model X SUV on US 101 near Mountain View in Silicon Valley. The driver, Walter Huang, 38, a software engineer for Apple, was killed in the crash.

In a statement on March 30, Tesla confirmed that the semi-autonomous Autopilot system was operating at the time of the crash and seemed to blame the crash on Huang. 

The company said Huang didn’t have his hands on the steering wheel for six seconds before the impact and also received several warnings from the vehicle.

Shortly after Tesla released the information, NTSB spokesman Christopher O’Neil said the agency was “unhappy” about the disclosure.

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Tesla tells drivers that its Autopilot system, which uses cameras, radar and computers to maintain speed, change lanes, self-park and automatically stop vehicles, requires drivers to keep their eyes on the road and hands on the wheel in order to take control to avoid accidents.

Tesla, based in Palo Alto, California, said that its vehicle logs showed Huang took no action to stop the Model X from crashing into a concrete lane divider. 

Photographs of the SUV show that the front of the vehicle was demolished; its hood was ripped off; and its front wheels were scattered on the freeway.

The vehicle also caught fire, though Tesla said no one was in the vehicle when that happened. The company said the crash was made worse by a missing or damaged safety shield on the end of the lane divider that was supposed to help shield cars from any impact.

The safety board and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration are looking into the crash as well as another Tesla crash in January near Los Angeles in which a Model S sedan smashed into a fire truck parked on a freeway.

Tesla would not say whether the Model S in that crash was operating on Autopilot.

In the crash that killed Huang, a Tesla spokeswoman would not directly answer questions about why the SUV didn’t spot the barrier and stop before the collision.

Tesla: Model X in crash that killed Walter Huang was on autopilot

The spokeswoman referred to a statement saying that Tesla’s owner manuals have warnings and notifications that a driver should not depend on the car’s autosteer system to pick the right driving path. 

It also says that automatic emergency braking “is not designed to avoid a collision and is not a substitute for maintaining a safe traveling distance between you and the vehicle in front of you”.

Tesla said it had “been clear in our conversations with the NTSB that they’re more concerned with press headlines than actually promoting safety” and accused the agency of violating its own rules while trying to prevent Tesla from telling all the facts.

“We don’t believe this is right and we will be making an official complaint to Congress,” Tesla added, saying it would make an open records request to “understand the reasoning behind their focus on the safest cars in America while they ignore the cars that are the least safe”.