Behind Tesla’s War of Words With the Federal Agency Investigating a Fatal Model X Crash

April 13, 2018, 1:43 AM UTC

A war is brewing between Tesla, its CEO Elon Musk, and the National Transportation Safety Board over an investigation into a fatal Model X crash near San Francisco.

The disagreement — and resulting fallout — ended cooperation between Tesla and the NTSB on Thursday, in what is an unusual rupture between a carmaker and a federal agency. It also prompted an odd series of dueling public statements by the two sides that laid blame for bad blood on each other.

The disagreement stems from Tesla repeatedly sharing information publicly about the March 23 crash that left a driver dead who was driving while the car’s semi-autonomous system Autopilot was engaged.

The NTSB had granted Tesla “party status,” which the agency views as a privilege and allows information to be more easily shared between the company and investigators.

Under this rule, parties must sign an agreement that explicitly prohibits them from releasing investigative information to the media or to comment or analyze investigative findings without prior consultation with the NTSB. But Tesla posted two releases on its website and shared several statements to the media about the investigation.

In the latest exchange late Thursday, Tesla chastised the NTSB, stating the agency is “more concerned with press headlines than actually promoting safety,” that it’s really just an “advisory board,” and that it intends to make an official complaint with Congress.

To keep things straight, here’s a timeline:

March 23: Walter Huang, 38, died after a fatal crash in Mountain View, Calif., involving his 2017 Model X.

March 27: NTSB says it would investigate the crash. In a tweet, the agency wrote: “Unclear if automated control system was active at time of crash. Issues examined include: post-crash fire, steps to make vehicle safe for removal from scene.”

March 27: Tesla also posts a message on its website, noting that it “proactively reached out to the authorities to offer our assistance in investigating.” The company says it doesn’t yet know what happened “in the moments leading up to the accident, and we do not yet have any idea what caused it.”

Tesla does say that it hasn’t not been able to retrieve the vehicle’s logs because of extensive damage and that it’s working with authorities to recover the information. The company closes its statement by extending sympathy to the family and that “out of respect for the privacy of our customer and his family, we do not plan to share any additional details until we conclude the investigation.”

March 30: Tesla posts another release on its website. This time, sharing that its semi-autonomous system Autopilot was engaged with the adaptive cruise control follow-distance set to minimum. Tesla also shares that Huang had received several visual and one audible hands-on warning earlier in the drive and that his hands were not detected on the wheel for six seconds prior to the collision.

April 11: Tesla issues a statement that blames Huang, not Tesla’s semi-autonomous Autopilot system, for the fatal crash. The electric carmaker issued the statement blaming Huang, after his family had hired a law firm to explore legal options for them.

April 11 (late at night): Tesla says it has withdrawn from a party agreement with the NTSB, a move that gives the automaker the freedom to share information that could influence public perception.

April 12: NTSB posts a statement saying it has revoked Tesla as a party to the investigation and says it shared its plans with the automaker the night before. The agency said it took the action because Tesla violated the party agreement by releasing investigative information before it was vetted and confirmed by the NTSB.

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

April 12: Tired yet? Tesla fires back.

Here’s the complete statement released by Tesla on Thursday:

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.”