Tesla Inc. withdrew from the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation of a fatal accident involving one of its vehicles, an unusual move that followed public statements by the company blaming the driver and breaching the agency’s protocols.
“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 in an emailed statement. “We believe in transparency, so an agreement that prevents public release of information for over a year is unacceptable.”
Although Tesla won’t be a formal party to the probe, the company said it will continue to provide technical assistance to the NTSB.
Tesla issued a statement this week in response to a local television appearance by the family of Walter Huang, a 38-year-old who died last month in his Model X using the driver-assistance system Autopilot. The company said the “only” explanation for the crash was “if Mr. Huang was not paying attention to the road, despite the car providing multiple warnings to do so.”
It was the third time the company has commented on the Huang incident. In a March 30 blog post, Tesla said that the Model X driver’s hands weren’t on the steering wheel for six seconds prior to the fatal crash. An NTSB spokesman said the agency was “unhappy” with the company for disclosing details during the investigation.
Tesla Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk and NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt spoke by phone over the weekend and had what an agency spokesman said was a constructive conversation.
The NTSB is looking into the crash that killed Huang, as well as a collision in January involving a Tesla Model S that was using Autopilot when it rear-ended a fire truck parked on a freeway near Los Angeles.
The stakes for Tesla’s bid to defend Autopilot are significant. The NTSB’s investigation of the March 23 crash involving Huang contributed to a major selloff in the company’s shares. Musk claimed almost 18 months ago that the system will eventually render Tesla vehicles capable of full self-driving, and much of the value of the $51 billion company is linked to views that it could be an autonomous-car pioneer.
The NTSB guards the integrity of its investigations closely, demanding that participants adhere to rules about what information they can release and their expected cooperation. These so-called parties to investigations must sign legal agreements laying out their responsibilities.
The safety board has in some cases thrown airlines, aircraft manufacturers and unions off of investigations in cases where they were either making unauthorized statements or not producing information the NTSB expected of them.
Because it’s a relatively small agency with a limited numbers of employees, the NTSB relies heavily on these parties to assist its investigations. The safety board has subpoena power that it’s used in rare instances to compel companies involved in investigations to provide information.