Tesla complains to Congress over fatal Autopilot crash investigation

Tesla has been removed as a party to the NTSB's investigation into a fatal Model X crash, with the agency taking issue with the automaker's premature public release of Autopilot information. The crash, on March 23, saw a Model X SUV collide with a barrier on the highway in Mountain View, California, killing the driver.

Shortly after, Tesla confirmed that the car had been operating on Autopilot, its adaptive cruise control system which also handles lane-keeping. Autopilot had warned the driver with both visual and audible notifications that he was to retake the wheel, Tesla said, having sifted through the car's logs from the time of the crash. When the electric SUV collided with the barrier, the driver's hands had been off the wheel for six seconds.

At the same time, though, Tesla also commented on the circumstances of the crash. The barrier with which the car collided, the automaker pointed out, had already been damaged in a previous incident but not yet repaired. That, Tesla suggested, impaired its ability to absorb forces from the impact. "We have never seen this level of damage to a Model X in any other crash," Tesla said at the time.

That eagerness to share information has now landed the automaker into hot water. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has announced today that Tesla has been removed as a so-called "party" to the investigation, "because Tesla violated the party agreement by releasing investigative information before it was vetted and confirmed by the NTSB." The agency said that it had informed Tesla CEO Elon Musk the previous evening by phone call.

The party system is designed to augment the NTSB's limited number of employees, designating third-party organizations or corporations as officially assisting with the investigation. "Only those organizations or corporations that can provide expertise to the investigation are granted party status and only those persons who can provide the Board with needed technical or specialized expertise are permitted to serve on the investigation," the NTSB says

Part of the requirements of accepting that invitation, as Tesla did in the case of this particular crash on April 6, is agreeing to abide by the NTSB's rules on public disclosure. In short, that means only the NTSB is allowed to make public comment before a final decision is reached, including "releasing crash-related investigative information" independently. Overall, the official process can take 12-24 months to complete.

"Such releases of incomplete information often lead to speculation and incorrect assumptions about the probable cause of a crash," the agency points out, "which does a disservice to the investigative process and the traveling public." It's not the first time Tesla has prematurely released information in this manner, either, a fact that NTSB chairman Robert L. Sumwalt, III highlights in his letter to Musk confirming this week's decision.

Tesla's argument is that it believes the NTSB process is simply too slow, and said that it chose to pull out of the party agreement. In a statement given to SlashGear, a spokesperson from the automaker accused the agency of being "more concerned with press headlines than actually promoting safety" and of being selective in what information it releases publicly. As a result, Tesla will be making an official complaint to Congress.

"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." Tesla spokesperson

It's clear that Tesla and the NTSB differ in their view of what comprises public disclosure. "Transparency in the investigative process is achieved through the public release of on-scene information, preliminary reports, and the public docket," the agency counters, "as well as through board meetings that are open to the public."

Tesla remains a party to other ongoing investigations the NTSB is running, including a Model X crash in August 2017, and a Model S crash in January of this year.