In rare move, NTSB removes Tesla as party to fatal Mountain View investigation

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The National Transportation Safety Board, already "unhappy" about Tesla's decision to release information involving its Autopilot system, announced on Thursday the removal of the Palo Alto electric car company as a party to an investigation that killed a San Mateo man last month.

In a statement, the NTSB said it took this action because Tesla "violated the party agreement by releasing investigative information before it was vetted and confirmed by the NTSB. 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."

Bloomberg first reported Tesla's removal.

The announcement contradicts what a Tesla spokesman first emailed KTVU, along with other media outlets on Wednesday: "The characterization of the call as relayed to Bloomberg is false,” the spokesman wrote in the email. "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. 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.”

KTVU reached out to Tesla again on Thursday after the NTSB issued its announcement. And the car company reiterated that it chose to leave the investigation. And then it also lashed out at the government. 

It’s been clear in our conversations with the NTSB that they’re more concerned with press headlines than actually promoting safety," Tesla's latest statement read in part. "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."

The NTSB said Tesla was removed from the investigation because releasing investigative information before it is vetted and confirmed by government regulators can produce "incomplete information" that can 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 investigation was launched after Walter Huang of San Mateo was killed in March 23 while driving his Tesla Model X on U.S. Highway 101 in Mountain View. He crashed the car into a highway a divider. A week after the crash, Tesla admitted that Autopilot was engaged during the fatal crash.

While sympathizing with the family, Tesla seemed to blame Huang. On its website, Telsa said the driver had received "several visual and one audible hands-on warning earlier in the drive and the driver’s hands were not detected on the wheel for six seconds prior to the collision. The driver had about five seconds and 150 meters of unobstructed view of the concrete divider with the crushed crash attenuator, but the vehicle logs show that no action was taken."

As it explained its decision to remove Tesla, the NTSB said that its agency has used the "party system" for decades as part of its investigative process and offers party status to those organizations that can provide technical assistance.

"Participation in the party system is a privilege," the NTSB wrote, which allows the sharing of investigative information with all parties that agree to the terms of the party agreement.

“It is unfortunate that Tesla, by its actions, did not abide by the party agreement,” NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt said in a 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.”

CEO Elon Musk had not tweeted about the removal by noon on Thursday.

While rare, the NTSB has revoked party status in other investigations.  In 2009, the NTSB revoked the party status of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association in the investigation of a midair collision over the Hudson River.   In 2014, the party status of both the Independent Pilots Association and UPS were revoked during the investigation of the crash of UPS Flight 1354 in Birmingham, Alabama.

Tesla still remains a party to the ongoing investigations of the August 25, 2017, crash of a Tesla Model X in Lake Forest, California, and the January 22,crash of a Tesla Model S near Culver City, California, the NTSB pointed out.

NTSB  investigations generally take 12 to 24 months to complete.