Depending on whom you ask, Tesla was either kicked off of an investigation regarding the fatal crash of one of its cars this week, or it pulled out voluntarily. The company was working with the National Transportation Safety Board to investigate a crash last month involving a Tesla Model X that killed the driver, 38-year-old Walter Huang.
On Wednesday, Tesla tried to get out in front of the story, releasing a statement that it withdrew from the NTSB investigation “because it requires that we not release information about Autopilot [Tesla’s self-driving system] to the public.”
“We believe in transparency, so an agreement that prevents public release of information for over a year is unacceptable,” the company said. NTSB investigations are typically rigorous, thorough, and subsequently, slow-going. They require involved parties to maintain confidentiality until a final verdict is reached.
In reality, Tesla’s decision to step aside might not have actually gone as described. Bloomberg reports that Wednesday’s announcement was preceded by a “tense” phone call between NTSB chairman Robert Sumwalt, in which the NTSB kicked Tesla off of the investigation. Being removed from the investigation doesn’t really change or hinder the inquiry, it just makes Tesla less able to know how it is progressing and help shape public understanding.
The precipitating event was apparently a blog post from March 30, in which Tesla laid blame for the crash on the driver for not responding to the car’s warning signals.
In the moments before the collision, which occurred at 9:27 a.m. on Friday, March 23rd, Autopilot was engaged with the adaptive cruise control follow-distance set to minimum. The driver had received several visual and one audible hands-on warning earlier in the drive and the driver’s hands were not detected on the wheel for six seconds prior to the collision. The driver had about five seconds and 150 meters of unobstructed view of the concrete divider with the crushed crash attenuator, but the vehicle logs show that no action was taken.
It’s not hard to see why an official investigation might be annoyed at premature disclosures like this one.