The National Transportation Safety Board told Tesla Inc. on Wednesday that the carmaker was being removed from the investigation of a fatal accident, prior to the company announcing it had withdrawn from it, according to a person familiar with the discussion.
NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt relayed the decision in a call to Tesla’s Elon Musk that was described as tense by the person because the chief executive officer was unhappy with the safety board’s action. NTSB is expected to make a formal announcement in a release later today, said the person, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The unusual move followed public statements by the company blaming the driver in the fatal accident, in violation of agency protocols. The NTSB guards the integrity of its investigations closely, demanding that participants adhere to rules about what information they can release and their expected cooperation. These so-called parties to investigations must sign legal agreements laying out their responsibilities.
Tesla, in a statement issued late Wednesday, suggested the company chose to leave the probe.
“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,” the company said in an emailed statement. “We believe in transparency, so an agreement that prevents public release of information for over a year is unacceptable.”
While relations between the highest levels of the company and the agency are now frosty, the NTSB believes staffers at the two entities will continue cooperating, the person said. Tesla said that although it won’t be a formal party to the probe, it will continue to provide technical assistance to the NTSB.
The dispute between the safety agency and carmaker stem from statements the company made regarding Walter Huang, a 38-year-old who died last month in his Model X using the driver-assistance system known as Autopilot.
In a March 30 blog post, Tesla said that the Model X driver’s hands weren’t on the steering wheel for six seconds prior to the fatal crash. An NTSB spokesman said the agency was “unhappy” with the company for disclosing details during the investigation.
Musk and Sumwalt spoke by phone over the weekend and had what an agency spokesman said at the time was a constructive conversation. Musk promised to follow NTSB rules barring the company from commenting on the investigation.
But this week, Tesla responded to a local television appearance by Huang’s family saying the “only” explanation for the crash was that he “was not paying attention to the road, despite the car providing multiple warnings to do so.”
The action to remove the company from the probe was limited to the most recent fatal accident. Tesla is still a formal participant in the NTSB’s investigation of a January crash involving a Tesla Model S that was using Autopilot when it rear-ended a fire truck parked on a freeway near Los Angeles, according to the person.
The stakes for Tesla’s bid to defend Autopilot are significant. The NTSB’s investigation of the March 23 crash involving Huang contributed to a major selloff in the company’s shares. Musk claimed almost 18 months ago that the system will eventually render Tesla vehicles capable of full self-driving, and much of the value of the $50 billion company is linked to views that it could be an autonomous-car pioneer.
The safety board has in some cases thrown airlines, aircraft manufacturers and unions off of investigations in cases where they were either making unauthorized statements or not producing information the NTSB expected of them.
Because it’s a relatively small agency with a limited numbers of employees, the NTSB relies heavily on these parties to assist its investigations. The safety board has subpoena power that it’s used in rare instances to compel companies involved in investigations to provide information.