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Tesla Model X fatal crash investigation

Tesla CEO Elon Musk speaks at the Model X launch event in Femont, California on September 29, 2015. AFP PHOTO/SUSANA BATES (Photo credit should read SUSANA BATES/AFP/Getty Images)

On March 23, 2018, a Tesla Model X car crashed into a freeway divider, killing the driver, causing a fire and shutting down two lanes of Highway 101 near Mountain View, Calif. The National Transportation Safety Board is currently investigating the crash.

Tesla says it willingly withdrew from NTSB investigation

Tesla says it willingly withdrew from the party agreement with the National Transportation Safety Board, adding that the NTSB is more concerned with “press headlines than actually promoting safety,” a Tesla spokesperson told TechCrunch via email.

“Last week, in a conversation with the NTSB, we were told that if we made additional statements before their 12-24 month investigative process is complete, we would no longer be a party to the investigation agreement,” a Tesla spokesperson said in a statement to TechCrunch. “On Tuesday, we chose to withdraw from the agreement and issued a statement to correct misleading claims that had been made about Autopilot — claims which made it seem as though Autopilot creates safety problems when the opposite is true.”

This comes after the NTSB said it revoked Tesla’s party status in the investigation regarding the fatal crash involving one of Tesla’s Model X cars. The NTSB said it did so because Tesla, without permission from the NTSB, relayed information to the public regarding the investigation.

Tesla went on to note the prevalence of automotive fatalities in the United States in comparison to fatalities involving cars with Autopilot. Tesla says for every 320 million miles cars equipped with Autopilot drive, there is one fatality, including known pedestrian fatalities. That’s compared to one fatality for every 86 million miles driven for all vehicles, Tesla said.

“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 said.

Tesla also alleges its “clear in our conversations” with the NTSB that it cares less about safety and more about press headlines.

“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,” the spokesperson said. “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.”

Tesla also took time to note how the NTSB is an advisory body, rather than a regulatory one, and how Tesla has a “strong and positive relationship” with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)

“When tested by NHTSA, Model S and Model X each received five stars not only overall but in every sub-category,” the Tesla spokesperson said. “This was the only time an SUV had ever scored that well. Moreover, of all the cars that NHTSA has ever tested, Model S and Model X scored as the two cars with the lowest probability of injury. There is no company that cares more about safety and the evidence speaks for itself.”

When reached for comment pertaining to Tesla’s claims, the NTSB says it stands by the press release it issued earlier and has nothing to add. Meanwhile, the NHTSA says its investigation is ongoing.

“The agency is in contact with local investigators, consistent with NHTSA’s vigilant oversight and authority over the safety of all motor vehicles and equipment,” an NHTSA spokesperson said in a statement to TechCrunch. “NHTSA is dispatching its Special Crash Investigation Team and will take action as appropriate.”

Tesla is no longer working with NTSB in fatal Model X crash investigation

In light of Tesla going a bit rogue and disclosing details of the fatal crash that involved Autopilot, the National Transportation Safety Board is removing Tesla as a party in the investigation.

“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 NTSB wrote in a press release today. “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.”

This is not too surprising, given the NTSB said it was “unhappy” with Tesla following its March 30 disclosure that Autopilot was engaged during the crash.

Losing party status means Tesla is no longer able to provide technical assistance to the NTSB. As the NTSB notes, having party status is a “privilege” that enables two-way information sharing.

“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.”

The NTSB says it’s rare to revoke party status, but that it has happened before. While Tesla is no longer an official party, the NTSB says it expects Tesla to cooperate with any future data requests.

While Tesla is no longer a party in this specific case, the company is still working with the NTSB in other investigations, like the one pertaining to a crash in Lake Forest, California and one in Culver City.

On Wednesday, Tesla provided Bloomberg with a statement implying Tesla willingly withdrew from the party agreement.

“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 a statement to Bloomberg. “We believe in transparency, so an agreement that prevents public release of information for over a year is unacceptable.”

In a lengthy statement, Tesla said it willingly chose to withdraw from the agreement:

Last week, in a conversation with the NTSB, we were told that if we made additional statements before their 12-24 month investigative process is complete, we would no longer be a party to the investigation agreement. On Tuesday, we chose to withdraw from the agreement and issued a statement to correct misleading claims that had been made about Autopilot — claims which made it seem as though Autopilot creates safety problems when the opposite is true. In the US, there is one automotive fatality every 86 million miles across all vehicles. For Tesla, there is one fatality, including known pedestrian fatalities, every 320 million miles in vehicles equipped with Autopilot hardware. 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.

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.

Something the public may not be aware of is that the NTSB is not a regulatory body, it is an advisory body. The regulatory body for the automotive industry in the US is the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) with whom we have a strong and positive relationship. After doing a comprehensive study, NHTSA found that even the early version of Tesla Autopilot resulted in 40% fewer crashes. Autopilot has improved substantially since then.

When tested by NHTSA, Model S and Model X each received five stars not only overall but in every sub-category. This was the only time an SUV had ever scored that well. Moreover, of all the cars that NHTSA has ever tested, Model S and Model X scored as the two cars with the lowest probability of injury. There is no company that cares more about safety and the evidence speaks for itself.

NTSB is ‘unhappy’ about Tesla publicly disclosing details of fatal crash

Tesla provided some more details on Friday about the fatal crash involving one of its Model X vehicles, but the National Transportation Safety Board isn’t particularly happy about that, The Washington Post first reported.

“In each of our investigations involving a Tesla vehicle, Tesla has been extremely cooperative on assisting with the vehicle data,” NTSB spokesperson Chris O’Neil told TechCrunch “However, the NTSB is unhappy with the release of investigative information by Tesla.”

That’s because those involved in an NTSB investigation are required to inform the Board of information releases before doing so.

“The uncoordinated release of investigative information can affect how other parties work with us in the future so we take each unauthorized release seriously,” O’Neil told TechCrunch. “However, this release will not hinder our investigation.”

Last week, Tesla said Autopilot, the company’s semi-autonomous mode that can change lanes and maintain proper vehicle positions and safe speeds, was engaged in the moments leading up to the crash.

“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,” Tesla wrote in a blog post. “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.”

While Tesla and the NTSB have made some early observations, there’s still more work to be done as part of the investigation. The NTSB, for example, still needs Tesla’s help to decode the data the vehicle recorded and ultimately determine the “probable cause” of the crash, NTSB spokesperson O’Neil told the Post.

The investigation has also expanded to look into the concerns the driver had previously expressed about Autopilot. Walter Huang, the owner of the car who died as a result of the crash, had previously taken his car into the Tesla dealership, saying his car had a way of veering toward the exact barrier his car hit, ABC7 reported last week. Tesla, however, says it has no record of Huang complaining about Autopilot.

“We’ve been doing a thorough search of our service records and we cannot find anything suggesting that the customer ever complained to Tesla about the performance of Autopilot,” a Tesla spokesperson told TechCrunch. “There was a concern raised once about navigation not working correctly, but Autopilot’s performance is unrelated to navigation.”

Tesla declined to comment on the NTSB’s concerns.

Tesla says fatal crash involved Autopilot

Tesla has provided another update to last week’s fatal crash. As it turns out, Tesla said the driver had Autopilot on with the adaptive cruise control follow-distance set to minimum. However, it seems the driver ignored the vehicle’s warnings to take back control.

“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,” Tesla wrote in a blog post. “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.”

The promise of Tesla’s Autopilot system is to reduce car accidents. In the company’s blog post, Tesla notes Autopilot reduces crash rates by 40 percent, according to an independent review by the U.S. government. Of course, that does not mean the technology is perfect in preventing all accidents.

As Tesla previously noted, the crash was so severe because the middle divider on the highway had been damaged in an earlier accident. Tesla also cautioned that Autopilot does not prevent all accidents, but it does make them less likely to occur.

No one knows about the accidents that didn’t happen, only the ones that did. The consequences of the public not using Autopilot, because of an inaccurate belief that it is less safe, would be extremely severe. There are about 1.25 million automotive deaths worldwide. If the current safety level of a Tesla vehicle were to be applied, it would mean about 900,000 lives saved per year. We expect the safety level of autonomous cars to be 10 times safer than non-autonomous cars.

In the past, when we have brought up statistical safety points, we have been criticized for doing so, implying that we lack empathy for the tragedy that just occurred. Nothing could be further from the truth. We care deeply for and feel indebted to those who chose to put their trust in us. However, we must also care about people now and in the future whose lives may be saved if they know that Autopilot improves safety. None of this changes how devastating an event like this is or how much we feel for our customer’s family and friends. We are incredibly sorry for their loss.

This development, of course, comes in light of a fatal accident involving one of Uber’s self-driving cars in Tempe, Arizona.

What Tesla knows about the fatal Model X crash

Tesla has shed some more light on the fatal crash and fire involving a Model X car last week. In a blog post tonight, Tesla said it’s not yet clear what happened in the time leading up to the accident. Tesla also said it does not yet know what caused it.

Tesla did note that, according to its data, Tesla owners have driven that same stretch of Highway 101 with Autopilot engaged about 85,000 times since Tesla first rolled out the automated control system in 2015. Since the beginning of this year, Tesla drivers have successfully handled that stretch of the highway 20,000 times, according to Tesla.

“The reason this crash was so severe is that the crash attenuator, a highway safety barrier which is designed to reduce the impact into a concrete lane divider, had either been removed or crushed in a prior accident without being replaced,” the company wrote.

Below, you can see what the barrier was supposed to look like versus what it looked like the day before the accident.

Tesla says it obtained the image of the more recent photo from the dash cam of a witness who regularly makes the commute. The company went on to say it has “never seen this level of damage to a Model X in any other crash.”

As previously reported, the accident also caused a fire. In the event there is a fire, Tesla says its battery packs are designed so that people have enough time to get out of the car.

“According to witnesses, that appears to be what happened here as we understand there were no occupants still in the Model X by the time the fire could have presented a risk,” Tesla wrote. “Serious crashes like this can result in fire regardless of the type of car, and Tesla’s billions of miles of actual driving data shows that a gas car in the United States is five times more likely to experience a fire than a Tesla vehicle.”

The promise of Tesla’s Autopilot system is to reduce car accidents. In the company’s blog post, Tesla notes Autopilot reduces crash rates by 40 percent, according to an independent review by the U.S. government. Of course, that does not mean the technology is perfect in preventing all accidents.

Earlier today, the National Transportation Safety Board announced it is conducting an investigation into the accident, which killed the driver and resulted in a fire.

“Out of respect for the privacy of our customer and his family, we do not plan to share any additional details until we conclude the investigation,” Tesla’s blog post stated. “We would like to extend our deepest sympathies to the family and friends of our customer.”

Tesla fatal car crash prompts NTSB investigation

The United States National Transportation Safety Board is conducting an investigation into a fatal car crash involving a Tesla Model X car. On March 23, a Tesla car crashed into a freeway divider, killing the driver, causing a fire and shutting down two lanes of Highway 101 near Mountain View, Calif. It’s not clear if Tesla’s automated control system, Autopilot, was active at the time of the crash, the NTSB said in a tweet.

“We have been deeply saddened by this accident, and we have offered our full cooperation to the authorities as we work to establish the facts of the incident,” a Tesla spokesperson said in a statement to TechCrunch.

This investigation comes shortly after a fatal accident involving one of Uber’s self-driving cars in Tempe, Ariz. prompted the NTSB to send over a field team. According to the NTSB’s most recent update, the team was meeting with representatives from Uber, the NHTSA and Tempe Police Department. The department also said it was gathering and collecting information about the test vehicle’s technology, the pedestrian and the safety driver.

Last year, the NTSB looked into a 2016 accident involving Tesla’s Autopilot system in Florida. The NTSB partially faulted Tesla for the fatal crash, saying the system operated as intended but that the driver’s inattentiveness, due to over-reliance on the Autopilot system, resulted in the accident.