Tesla Has Been Kicked Off An Investigation Into A Fatal Crash After Claiming The Driver Was At Fault

The National Transportation Safety Board made the rare decision to remove Tesla as a party in its investigation into a March 23 crash involving a Model X because of a statement the company made to a local media outlet.

Federal investigators will no longer share their findings with Tesla as they look into what caused a fatal crash involving a Model X that was on autopilot after the company said the driver who died was likely at fault.

On Wednesday, the National Transportation Safety Board revoked Tesla's status as a party in its investigation because the company violated an agreement prohibiting the release of investigative information to the public before the completion of a final report on the crash.

Walter Huang was killed when his Model X SUV crashed on March 23 into a concrete lane divider on Highway 101 in Mountain View, California.

In response to inquiries about Huang's family hiring a lawyer to sue the company, Tesla said in a statement to KGO-TV Tuesday that Huang was likely at fault for the crash.

"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 company said.

Peter Knudson, a spokesperson for NTSB, told BuzzFeed News the agency became aware of the statement Wednesday after a local media outlet reached out for comment.

Last week, the NTSB's chairperson warned Tesla's CEO Elon Musk that it breached the party agreement by releasing data about the crash, at which point Musk said the company would like to remain a party in the investigation, according to a letter the agency sent on Thursday.

Knudson said the release of that data, which showed the driver's hands weren't detected on the wheel for six seconds before the collision, and the subsequent statement speculating on the cause of the deadly crash were the reasons behind removing Tesla from the investigative team.

"That’s analytical in nature, saying what caused the accident," Knudson said, referring to Tesla's statement. "We don't do that sort of analysis at this point in the investigation."

However, a Tesla spokesperson said the company decided on its own to withdraw from the party agreement on Tuesday and released the statement "to correct misleading claims that had been made about Autopilot."

Those claims suggested that the company's semiautonomous driving system created safety problems, the spokesperson added.

Huang's family previously told KGO-TV that he had repeatedly complained that the car's semiautonomous system kept veering toward the same barrier.

"The opposite is true," the Tesla spokesperson said in a statement emailed to BuzzFeed News Thursday. "If you are driving a Tesla equipped with Autopilot hardware, you are 3.7 times less likely to be involved in a fatal accident and this continues to improve."

The spokesperson went on to say that NTSB appeared to be "more concerned with press headlines than actually promoting safety" and argued that the federal agency has released incomplete information to the public in violation of their own rules.

Knudson said it was the first time NTSB has removed Tesla as a party to an investigation. The company is still a party in two other ongoing investigations into crashes involving its vehicles in Lake Forest and Culver City, California.

"It does happen, but it is rare considering how many investigations we do and how many party members we have," Knudson said.

He estimated that the NTSB investigates between 1,300 and 1,400 accidents in all modes of transportation each year.

According to the NTSB, sharing information about an ongoing investigation with companies, emergency responders, and other groups allows those parties to take any immediate actions necessary to ensure safety.

Knudson said the NTSB will still be able to get information from Tesla for its investigation and could make urgent safety recommendations if needed.

"However, we will not be sharing information about the findings with them," he said. "They will no longer have that benefit."

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