— The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) says it has tossed out Tesla as a party to the investigation of a March 2018 fatal Model X crash in Mountain View, California.
The violent crash killed 38-year-old Wei Huang when the SUV slammed into a concrete highway divider and blew apart the front of the electric SUV. Days later Tesla released a statement that said its semi-autonomous feature "Autopilot" was engaged at the time of the crash.
Although the NTSB usually doesn't investigate car crashes, the agency says incidents that involve autonomous technology is an interest to the government as driverless cars start appearing on public roads.
The NTSB says it has invited outside parties to participate in investigations for decades, primarily so those organizations and companies can provide technical assistance concerning crash incidents.
The government says Tesla was offered the opportunity to join the investigation and accepted the "privilege" to work with federal investigators during the early phases of the crash investigation. The sharing of information would allow the automaker to see what federal investigators see and immediately take action, if needed, to improve safety.
The NTSB says Tesla knew not to release statements about the investigation while investigators were still doing their job, but the automaker ignored the rules and released details before anything was confirmed by federal investigators.
The government says its investigations are complex and comprehensive and sometimes can take months or years to complete, but Tesla ignored the rules and released incomplete information about the probable cause of the crash.
Federal investigators say what Tesla did often leads to incorrect assumptions and "does a disservice to the investigative process and the traveling public."
"Transparency in the investigative process is achieved through the public release of on-scene information, preliminary reports, and the public docket, as well as through board meetings that are open to the public." - NTSB
Government investigators say although they have revoked party status a few times over the years, a revocation is rare but in this case justified to keep the investigation independent.
Tesla obviously doesn't see things the same way and released a statement that said it wasn't thrown out of the process but instead "chose to withdraw from the agreement" so it could "correct misleading claims that had been made about Autopilot." The automaker says federal investigators were upset when Tesla went public with its findings about the crash.
As the NTSB was collecting information about the incident, Tesla released statements that said Model X driver Wei Huang allegedly removed his hands from the steering wheel. The automaker also said Huang received several warnings from the Autopilot system telling him to get his hands on the wheel, warnings that were allegedly ignored.
Days after the crash, Tesla made additional statements about photos that showed the concrete lane divider that was hit by the SUV looked like it had been damaged and unrepaired from an earlier crash.
In addition, Tesla went on to say Huang took no evasive action to avoid the crash even though he should have seen the concrete divider for about five seconds (150 meters) prior to impact.
As for the Autopilot system apparently not detecting the correct lane lines or the divider, Tesla said the real issue was how the driver removed his hands from the steering wheel and ignored all visual and audible warnings.
Tesla says every driver must agree to certain conditions before engaging Autopilot, including agreeing to keep their hands on the steering wheel at all times and their eyes on the road.
Claiming the NTSB is "more concerned with press headlines than actually promoting safety," Tesla says the federal agency "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."
The automaker didn't say what it meant by "partial bits of incomplete information," but did say it will take the matter to Congress and will file a Freedom Of Information Act request to understand why NTSB investigators are allegedly gunning for the automaker "while they ignore the cars that are the least safe."
"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." - Tesla
Tesla says it is very sorry for the family's loss, but Mr. Huang was well aware that Autopilot wasn't perfect and yet he still chose to remove his hands from the wheel and neglect his surroundings. Tesla says the only reason the crash occurred was because Huang ignored multiple warnings to get his hands on the wheel.
"We empathize with Mr. Huang’s family, who are understandably facing loss and grief, but the false impression that Autopilot is unsafe will cause harm to others on the road. NHTSA found that even the early version of Tesla Autopilot resulted in 40% fewer crashes and it has improved substantially since then. The reason that other families are not on TV is because their loved ones are still alive.” - Tesla
Huang's family says they have retained legal counsel for a forthcoming lawsuit that will allege the crash was caused by a defective Autopilot system.