Musk Declares War On NTSB: "They're More Concerned With Press Headlines Than Safety"

Update II: After making a statement to Bloomberg earlier in the day, Tesla has responded to the NTSB's official statement outlining its reasoning for removing Tesla as a "party" to a crash investigation.

In what can only be described as a scathing attack on the agency leading the investigation into the latest deadly crash involving Tesla's controversial "autopilot" software, Tesla declared that the NTSB is "more concerned with press headlines than actually promoting safety" and accused it of violating its own rule surrounding releasing information to the media.

After threatening to file a complaint with Congress, Tesla said it woudl file a freedom of information request to try and learn more about the reasoning behind the NTSB's decision.

"It's been clear in our conversations with the NTSB that they're more concerned with press headlines than actually promoting safety. 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. We will also be issuing a Freedom Of Information Act request to understand the reasoning behind their focus on the safest cars in America while they ignore the cars that are the least safe. Perhaps there is a sound rationale for this, but we cannot imagine what that could possibly be."

We suspect this is only the beginning of what could be a protracted back-and-forth between Tesla and NTSB as the electric vehicle manufacturer fights to clear its name.

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Update: The NTSB has released a statement explaining its decision for removing Tesla as a "party" to its investigation into the fatal March crash in Mountain View, Calif.

For those who are unfamiliar with the NTSB's party system, the agency offers entities that could be helpful during investigations the option of becoming a party - a status that allows virtually unfettered access to the NTSB's findings. The point is to ensure that information that can help companies improve safety standards is released to the companies as quickly as possible.

Tesla violated this status by releasing information to the public before it could be vetted by the NTSB - which the company did when it revealed that the driver of the car in the fatal crash had taken his hands off the steering wheel for six seconds before the crash occurred.

Read the full released below.

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WASHINGTON (April 12, 2018) — The National Transportation Safety Board announced Thursday the removal of Tesla as a party to the NTSB’s investigation of the March 23 fatal crash of a 2017 Tesla Model X near Mountain View, California.

The NTSB took this action 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 NTSB has used the party system for decades as part of its investigative process and offers party status to those organizations that can provide technical assistance. Tesla was offered and accepted party status for the NTSB investigation into the Mountain View crash. Participation in the party system is a privilege, which allows the sharing of investigative information with all parties that agree to the terms of the party agreement during the early fact-gathering phase of an investigation. This sharing ensures that a party to an investigation has sufficient information to take any immediate actions necessary to ensure safety.  For example, the NTSB issued an urgent safety recommendation on March 19 related to the crash of a sightseeing helicopter in New York City, which allowed corrective actions to be carried out immediately.

 “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. Musk in a phone call last evening and via letter today. While we understand the demand for information that parties face during an NTSB investigation, uncoordinated releases of incomplete information do not further transportation safety or serve the public interest.”

NTSB investigations are comprehensive, independent, and thorough. They generally take 12 to 24 months to complete. Transparency in the investigative process is achieved through the public release of on-scene information, preliminary reports, and the public docket, as well as through board meetings that are open to the public.

While rare, the NTSB has revoked party status in other investigations.  In 2009, the NTSB revoked the party status of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association in the investigation of a midair collision over the Hudson River.   In 2014, the party status of both the Independent Pilots Association and UPS were revoked during the investigation of the crash of UPS Flight 1354 in Birmingham, Alabama.

“There is nothing in the party agreement that prevents a company from enacting swift and effective measures to counter a threat to public safety,” said Sumwalt. “We continue to encourage Tesla to take actions on the safety recommendations issued as a result of our investigation of the 2016 Williston, Florida, crash.”

As it is the manufacturer of the vehicle involved in the Mountain View crash, the NTSB expects Tesla’s future cooperation with data requests. Further, Tesla remains a party to the ongoing investigations of the August 25, 2017, crash of a Tesla Model X in Lake Forest, California, and the January 22, 2018, crash of a Tesla Model S near Culver City, California.

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Tesla has repeatedly infuriated investigators at the National Transportation Safety Board by announcing its Autopilot software was not to blame for a deadly and gruesome crash in Mountain View last month - despite the official probe not being over yet - and the government agency has finally had enough... as has Tesla: on Thursday, Tesla said it would withdraw from the NTSB's investigation and cease cooperating with investigators.

The news immediately hit Tesla shares.

Tesla

Bloomberg described this as "an unusual move" because, typically, when your company has nothing to hide, there's little reason to, well, cease cooperating with investigators: we can only imagine Elon Musk would have fired Mueller long ago if he were president. Still, though it won't have a formal role in the probe, Tesla will still provide "assistance" to the NTSB.

In justifying its decision, Tesla made an unusual argument: That it would withdraw from the probe in the interest of transparency because the NTSB has repeatedly stopped it from releasing information about autopilot, something that Tesla says violates its "commitment" to transparency.

"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," the company said in an emailed statement. "We believe in transparency, so an agreement that prevents public release of information for over a year is unacceptable."

For what it's worth, the NTSB says it kicked Tesla off the probe - an action that wouldn't be altogether unprecedented.

Tesla angered the NTSB earlier this week when it released a statement saying the "only" explanation for the crash was that Walter Huang, the 38-year-old who died during the accident, was not paying attention. Before that, Tesla said in a blog post that the driver's hands weren't on the steering wheel for six seconds leading up to the crash.

As Bloomberg points out, because it's a relatively small agency, the NTSB relies on the cooperation of companies like Tesla to assist in its probes.

While the NTSB has no regulatory powers, it makes safety-related recommendations to both the government and transportation companies. Meanwhile, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration does have the power to order recalls and fine manufacturers; it also investigated the 2016 Tesla crash and closed its probe in January 2017, saying it didn’t find a defect.

With Musk trying to pivot focus back to the company's long climb out of "production hell" - and his recent announcement that production of the next Tesla Model would begin late next year - will markets once again go along with it?

Judging by today's action in Tesla shares, it doesn't look like it.