The Industry

Tesla Kicked Off Investigation of Fatal Crash for Releasing Information Blaming the Driver

Tesla says it quit the investigation, but the NTSB says the company was kicked out.
Tesla says it quit the investigation, but the NTSB says the company was kicked out.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

Tesla found itself further embroiled in scandal this week as it faces new allegations of misrepresenting its departure from a National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigation.

On March 23, 38-year-old Walter Huang died when his Model X ran into a highway barrier in Mountain View, California. The NTSB sent representatives to look into the fire that resulted from the crash and to determine whether the car’s autopilot feature had any role in the fatality.
Tesla was a formal participant in the investigation, which means that the company would be expected to offer technical assistance and follow protocols regarding the release of information. The company would also have the ability to influence the official report and to access information that the NTSB discovered.

A week later, Tesla disclosed in a blog post that autopilot was in fact engaged during the incident, making this the second instance in which a driver has died while using Tesla’s self-driving feature. The company also asserted, “The driver had 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 prior to the collision.” NTSB told Bloomberg that it was “unhappy” that Tesla had made these disclosures, and board chairman Robert Sumwalt reportedly called CEO Elon Musk to request that the company not comment on an ongoing investigation.

Yet, the company again placed blame on Huang after his wife, Sevonne, gave an interview to ABC7 on Tuesday and claimed that he had been complaining about the autopilot feature before his death. Sevonne Huang indicated that the family had hired a law firm and is considering legal action against Tesla. In response, the company issued a statement to ABC7, which read in part:

We are very sorry for the family’s loss. According to the family, Mr. Huang was well aware that Autopilot was not perfect and, specifically, he told them it was not reliable in that exact location, yet he nonetheless engaged Autopilot at that location. 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.

The next day, Tesla issued another statement claiming that it had decided to discontinue its formal participation in the NTSB investigation:

Today, 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. We believe in transparency, so an agreement that prevents public release of information for over a year is unacceptable. Even though we won’t be a formal party, we will continue to provide technical assistance to the NTSB.

The NTSB disputed that account on Thursday, instead asserting that it had removed Tesla from the investigation via a phone call from Sumwalt to Musk on Wednesday. A statement from the board reads, in part:

The NTSB took this action because Tesla violated the party agreement by releasing investigative 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.

After a source familiar with the NTSB’s decision told Bloomberg about Sumwalt’s call to Musk, Tesla said, “the characterization of the call as relayed to Bloomberg is false.”

Tesla been juggling multiple crises as of late. The company had its worst month ever on the market in March, with its stocks losing almost a quarter of their value within three weeks. At the end of the month, it voluntarily recalled 123,000 of its Model S cars for issues with the power steering components; those vehicles account for nearly half the cars it has ever sold. Tesla also continues to fail in meeting production targets for its Model 3 sedan, a problem that it’s struggled to deal with for roughly a year. Moody’s decided to downgrade Tesla’s outlook from stable to negative because of these failures. Musk recently decided to personally take over Model 3 production after the company missed its goal of producing 2,500 Model 3s per week by the end of March.

Later this month, depositions are also set to begin for a racial discrimination case brought against Tesla by two black men who were formerly employed as contract workers.

Aaron Mak writes about technology for Slate.