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NTSB and Tesla executives clash over investigation into deadly California crash

Emergency personnel work at the scene where a Tesla electric SUV crashed into a barrier on U.S. Highway 101 in California. (KTVU via AP)
Emergency personnel work at the scene where a Tesla electric SUV crashed into a barrier on U.S. Highway 101 in California. (KTVU via AP) (AP)

Tesla is no longer a party to the federal investigation into a deadly crash involving one of its vehicles in California last month, the government and company said Thursday.

But the two sides offer different explanations for the split, and the dispute between the National Transportation Safety Board and the electric carmaker could have broad implications for safety investigations and the development of partially and fully automated vehicles.

The NTSB says it “decided to revoke Tesla’s party status” in the case after the automaker released information about the crash. Tesla says it chose to withdraw and accused the safety agency of being “more concerned with press headlines than actually promoting safety.”

Teslas said it “will be making an official complaint to Congress” about the NTSB.

NTSB ‘unhappy’ with Tesla release of investigative information in fatal crash

The highly unusual public conflict between the federal government’s top transportation safety agency and Tesla executives could shape how future investigations unfold.

A key question in an era of swiftly changing technology is whether companies will increasingly speak out on their own, particularly when they believe it is to their benefit to do so, or whether they will follow the protocol of NTSB investigations, which can take a year or more but are widely trusted.

The dispute centers on the investigation of the March 23 crash in which Tesla owner Walter Huang, 38, was killed when his 2017 Model X, running in semi-automated “Autopilot” mode, smashed into a concrete median on U.S. 101 near Mountain View, Calif.

Initially, it was unclear whether the vehicle was in Autopilot mode, and the investigation was focused on a damaged collision barrier and the post-crash fire that complicated the emergency response.

Tesla may have violated federal rules by releasing information about fatal California crash

In a March 30 blog post, Tesla confirmed the car had been in Autopilot. Among other disclosures, it also said Huang “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 before the collision.”

Tesla tells customers to keep their hands on the wheel. But researchers and competing technology developers say human nature makes it easy to become overly reliant on such technology.

NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt spoke with Tesla chief executive Elon Musk on Friday, raising objections, as the agency has done multiple times in recent weeks, about the company’s release of 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,” the NTSB said Thursday.

NTSB investigating whether damaged crash barrier contributed to fiery fatal Tesla wreck

Earlier this week, Minami Tamaki LLP, the law firm representing Huang’s widow, said it believes “Tesla’s Autopilot feature is defective and likely caused Huang’s death, despite Tesla’s apparent attempt to blame the victim of this terrible tragedy.”

The lawyers also said their “preliminary review indicates that the navigation system of the Tesla may have misread the lane lines on the roadway, failed to detect the concrete median, failed to brake the car, and drove the car into the median.”

In response, Tesla issued a statement saying “the crash happened on a clear day with several hundred feet of visibility ahead, which means that the only way for this accident to have occurred is if Mr. Huang was not paying attention to the road, despite the car providing multiple warnings to do so.”

Sumwalt said Tesla’s comments “speculated as to the cause” of the crash.

The NTSB says its party system allows sharing among participants and helps ensure parties have “sufficient information to take any immediate actions necessary to ensure safety.”

But Tesla said the NTSB “repeatedly released partial bits of incomplete information . . . at the same time that they were trying to prevent us from telling all the facts.”

“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,” Tesla said.

An NTSB spokesman declined to respond to Tesla’s comments.