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Tesla late Wednesday, and again on Thursday, contended it dropped out, saying restrictions on disclosures could jeopardize public safety by blocking the timely release of relevant information to the public including about its semiautonomous driving system, called Autopilot.
The safety board countered that its procedures call for immediate recommendations if emergency safety fixes are required.
The dispute between an unconventional Silicon Valley electric-car maker and a small government agency with sizable influence over transportation safety illustrates how both sides are grappling with new investigative and public-relations issues stemming from crashes of vehicles with driverless-car technologies.
The safety board, with five members confirmed by the Senate, is responsible for investigating accidents across various transportation modes and then issuing nonbinding recommendations to regulatory authorities.
Despite a sterling world-wide reputation for dissecting aviation disasters, the NTSB lacks extensive experience looking into the complexities of autonomous systems controlling passenger vehicles.
While the safety board has no regulatory mandate, over the years its findings and recommendations have shaped aviation, railroad and pipeline operations. It has relied on companies and unions to participate in accident probes by contributing technical expertise, but those so-called parties to federal investigations have to follow strict prohibitions against unilaterally giving out information to the public or prematurely announcing conclusions to the media.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D., Conn.), who has long delved into auto-safety issues, said Thursday he was “troubled by Tesla’s reckless disregard” of its obligations to the NTSB. “If autonomous-vehicle manufacturers like Tesla cannot be trusted to fully cooperate, then it’s clear that Congress must act,” he said in a written statement.
Removals from NTSB party agreements are rare. The agency in 2014 revoked party status for
and a pilots union in the probe of a crash of one of the package-delivery company’s cargo planes after public comments were made by each side about circumstances surrounding the accident.
For Tesla, a departure from the NTSB agreement risks diminishing the car maker’s influence over and insight into an investigation that could ultimately reach critical conclusions about one of the company’s signature products.
Tesla’s pugnacity toward the NTSB reflects its iconoclastic approach to corporate communications that often involves Chief Executive
assailing critics on Twitter, even to the point of joking about the company’s financial ruin.
Unlike other car makers, Tesla doesn’t shy from confronting government agencies. On Thursday, it repeated an earlier point Mr. Musk had tweeted, calling the NTSB an “advisory body” as opposed to a “regulatory” one and describing its own relationship with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the main federal agency that oversees vehicle makers, “strong and positive.”
Autopilot has garnered investor enthusiasm and helped Tesla at one point surpass
as the U.S.’s most valuable auto maker by market capitalization. The technology has also drawn scrutiny, though, with the NTSB determining after the May 2016 fatal crash of a Tesla car that Autopilot allowed a driver to go long periods without hands on the wheel and ignore warnings, among other shortcomings from the vehicle.
The NTSB is also investigating the January crash of a Tesla Model S into the back of a firetruck near Culver City, Calif. The vehicle’s driver said Autopilot was engaged at the time of the crash, according to local firefighters. And the NTSB is probing the March 18 death of a pedestrian struck and killed in Arizona by an Uber Technologies Inc. self-driving car, though not a Tesla, that had a safety operator behind the wheel.
Tesla released information about the March 23 fatal crash under investigation several times recently, suggesting that the driver, Walter Huang, was to blame because, though Autopilot was activated before the crash, he still had at least five seconds to take over the wheel before it collided with a highway barrier.
The NTSB said such releases can prompt “speculation and incorrect assumptions about the probable cause of a crash, which does a disservice to the investigative process and the traveling public.”
and Mr. Musk last Friday appeared to defuse tension, with the two men discussing the agency’s investigative processes and recommendations U.S. investigators made after the May 2016 fatal Tesla crash, according to a letter released Thursday.
But on Wednesday, Tesla came out with a stronger statement defending Autopilot and blaming the incident on Mr. Huang after his family hired a lawyer to explore legal options.
“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 wasn’t paying attention to the road, despite the car providing multiple warnings to do so,” the company said.
The NTSB said it alerted Mr. Musk to the decision to revoke the company’s status as a party to the probe on Wednesday evening and through a letter delivered to the company the following day. “It is unfortunate that Tesla, by its actions, did not abide by the party agreement,” Mr. Sumwalt said.
Tesla said Thursday it needed to correct “misleading claims that have been made about Autopilot” that suggested the technology undermined safety. The auto maker accused the NTSB of being “more concerned with press headlines than actually promoting safety” and releasing “partial bits of incomplete information to the media in violation” of its own rules.
Tesla said it would make an official complaint to Congress, as well as a public-records request to “understand the reasoning behind [the NTSB’s] focus on the safest cars in America while they ignore the cars that are the least safe.”
Mr. Musk has been aggressive in rolling out partially automated driving technology, contending it enhances safety when used correctly. He has been working on making Tesla vehicles capable of fully piloting themselves, and investors have bid up the company’s stock partly because of Tesla’s progress with automated-driving technology.
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