Authorities remove Tesla from fatal Autopilot crash investigation

13 Apr 2018

Tesla Model X P90D on a highway. Image: Yauhen_D/Shutterstock

Tesla pulled from fatal Autopilot crash investigation.

On 23 March of this year, Walter Huang was involved in a fatal incident while driving his Tesla Model X near Mountain View in California.

Shortly after Huang’s death, the US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) commenced an investigation into the incident.

NTSB unhappy with Tesla

Future Human

According to Bloomberg, the NTSB has revoked Tesla’s ‘party status’, essentially removing it from the investigation. The body said it took this step because the autotech company had released “investigative information before it was vetted and confirmed” by the agency.

The NTSB issued a statement dated 12 April, explaining why it decided to remove Tesla from the process: “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 travelling public.”

Tesla fires back

Contrary to the NTSB’s version of events, Tesla issued a statement where it said it decided itself to withdraw earlier this week as the NTSB was allegedly throttling its ability to share information before the procedure ended.

Tesla also argued that the NTSB is not telling the full story, claiming that the agency has released statements concerning the crash while telling the tech company not to do so. It said it would issue a Freedom of Information Act request in order to understand the reasoning behind the NTSB’s focus on autonomous cars.

A Tesla representative told The Verge: “Among other things, they [the NTSB] 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.”

At the time of the fatal crash, Huang was using the Model X’s Autopilot feature and his hands were not detected on the wheel in the six seconds prior to impact. Tesla said that the car’s systems had issued warnings to Huang to regain control from Autopilot earlier in the journey.

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

The NSTB rarely revokes party status in other investigations, but it has happened. In 2009, it revoked the party status of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association in the investigation of a mid-air collision over the Hudson River. In 2014, the party status of both the Independent Pilots Association and UPS were revoked during the investigation of the crash of UPS Flight 1354 in Birmingham, Alabama.

Tesla Model X P90D on a highway. Image: Yauhen_D/Shutterstock

Ellen Tannam was a journalist with Silicon Republic, covering all manner of business and tech subjects