Federal investigators have taken the rare action of removing Tesla as a party to an ongoing investigation of the fatal March 23 crash of a Tesla Model X in Mountain View, California.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said that Tesla Inc. violated investigative protocol by releasing information pertaining to the crash probe before it was vetted and approved by the NTSB officials.
“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 NTSB said in a statement.
The agency has used the party system as part of its investigative process for decades, allowing companies and other parties who can provide technical assistance to work alongside federal authorities in a probe. The NTSB says that participation in the party system is a privilege that ensures transparency and cooperation in the fact-gathering phase of an investigation.
The earliest stages of an investigation are the often most critical because officials may uncover evidence that leads to an urgent safety recommendation. For example, the NTSB issued an urgent safety recommendation on March 19 related to the deadly crash of a sightseeing helicopter in New York City, which allowed corrective actions to be carried out immediately.
The NTSB indicated that parties to an investigation can help or hurt this process, depending on their cooperation.
“It is unfortunate that Tesla, by its actions, did not abide by the party agreement,” said NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt. “We decided to revoke Tesla’s party status and informed Mr. (Elon) Musk in a phone call … and via letter …”
Mr. Sumwalt added that “uncoordinated releases of incomplete information do not further transportation safety or serve the public interest.”
The NTSB has revoked party status in other investigations, such as the 2014 crash of UPS Flight 1354 in Birmingham, Alabama, when it revoked the party status of the Independent Pilots Association and UPS for violating protocol.
The agency said that it still expects Tesla’s full cooperation with data requests and that the automaker remains a party to two other crash investigations involving Tesla vehicles with Autopilot and autonomous driving capabilities.
Wei Huang, a 38-year-old Apple engineer and father of two was killed March 23 when his Tesla Model X on Autopilot slammed into a highway barrier going about 70 mph. The NTSB is investigating why the vehicle, equipped with limited self-driving abilities and crash-avoidance systems, failed to recognize the obstacle.