Feds To Tesla: You Didn't Quit Model X Investigation, You Were Fired (Updated)

Illustration for article titled Feds To Tesla: You Didn't Quit Model X Investigation, You Were Fired (Updated)
Screenshot: ABC7 (YouTube)

Late Wednesday, Tesla said it withdrew from a formal agreement with the National Transportation Safety Board over a provision that says it can’t release details of a fatal crash involving a Model X traveling with the vehicle’s Autopilot system engaged. But today, Bloomberg reports that, in fact, the NTSB kicked Tesla off the probe.


Both the agency, which investigates the probable cause of transportation accidents, and Tesla have been sparring for days, with the spin over who left the Model X probe and when becoming increasingly exhausting.

Here’s what Tesla said on Wednesday:

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.

But according to Bloomberg, the suggestion Tesla chose to leave the agreement—something that’s routinely hashed out as part of NTSB investigations—is bunk.

Citing an unnamed person familiar with the discussion, Bloomberg reported Thursday that NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt told Tesla CEO Elon Musk in a call that it was removing the automaker from the probe over Tesla’s earlier decision to release information to the public about the probe. The call, Bloomberg said, was “described as tense” by its source because Musk was “unhappy with the safety board’s action.”


The NTSB is expected to issue a formal announcement in a press release later today, Bloomberg said. A spokesperson for the agency didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. Tesla didn’t comment on the report.

The safety board has booted airlines and unions off investigations in the past, Bloomberg reported, because they were “either making unauthorized statements or not producing information the NTSB expected of them.” The news outlet pointed out that NTSB closely guards its investigations and requires parties to sign agreements that lay out responsibilities, including not to disseminate information to the public.


The dust-up began late last month, when Tesla wrote in a blog post that the Model X driver, 38-year-old Walter Huang, didn’t have his hands on the steering wheel for six seconds prior to the crash. In response, an NTSB spokesperson said the agency was “unhappy” with Tesla for releasing info on the crash.

Huang’s death is the third known fatality involving a Tesla engaged in Autopilot. His family retained a law firm that said on Tuesday it’s exploring legal options for them.


“The Huang family intends to file a wrongful death lawsuit against Tesla and, possibly, its subcontractors involved in the design and construction of the Autopilot system,” the law firm said.

Update, 12:43 p.m.: A Tesla spokesperson said in a statement, “The characterization of the call as relayed to Bloomberg is false.”


Update, 1:49 p.m.: The NTSB makes it official.

In a press release, the agency said it removed Tesla as a party to its ongoing investigation 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,” the release said.

Senior Reporter, Jalopnik/Special Projects Desk


Mr. Blonde

I’m no big city lawyer (adjusts suspenders...), but don’t you agree to use autopilot responsibly? If you fail to do so, at your own peril obviously, then I believe the legal term for that is Tough Shit.