Tesla, NTSB clash over fatal car crash probe

The National Transportation Safety Board and Tesla offered clashing explanations this week for why the electric car maker is no longer directly involved in a formal investigation of the fatal car crash involving one of its vehicles.

Officials are examining a crash that killed Walter Huang, a 38-year-old man who died when his Tesla Model X slammed into a barrier on a stretch of highway near Mountain View, California. Tesla previously said that the electric car’s autopilot function was activated seconds before the crash and blamed the incident on driver error in a March 30 blog post and a subsequent statement. The company also defended the safety of its autopilot technology in the post.

The NTSB said Thursday that it revoked Tesla’s status as an official party to its investigation because the car company prematurely released information related to the crash. The agency’s chairman, Robert Sumwalt, said in a statement that Tesla CEO Elon Musk was informed of the decision by phone and letter.

"The NTSB took this action because Tesla violated the party agreement by releasing investigative information before it was vetted and confirmed by the NTSB,” the agency said in a statement on Thursday. “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."

Tesla disputed the wording of the NTSB’s statement. The company said it had opted to withdraw its status as a party to the investigation, but would continue to assist authorities.

"It’s been clear in our conversations with the NTSB that they’re more concerned with press headlines than actually promoting safety," a Tesla spokesperson told FOX Business. "Among other things, they repeatedly released partial bits of incomplete information to the media in violation of their own rules, at the same time that they were trying to prevent us from telling all the facts. We don’t believe this is right and we will be making an official complaint to Congress."

Tesla shares are flat in trading so far this week. The company’s stock has been challenged amid investor concerns about the NTSB probe and Tesla’s failure to meet certain production goals on its flagship Model 3 car.

The NTSB described the decision to revoke Tesla’s status as “rare,” but noted that it previously did so in separate investigations that occurred in 2009 and 2014.

“As it is the manufacturer of the vehicle involved in the Mountain View crash, the NTSB expects Tesla’s future cooperation with data requests,” the agency said.