Tesla Model X
Tesla Model X

The National Transportation Safety Board took the unusual step Thursday of revoking Tesla’s status as a “party” to its investigation into a fatal collision that killed the driver of a Model X while the SUV’s Autopilot feature was engaged.

The NTSB—which investigates all significant U.S. transportation accidents and incidents—says the automaker broke its agreement to refrain from publicly releasing information about the crash, according to a statement from NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt on Thursday. 

The Model X crashed into a concrete barrier March 23 on a road in Mountainview, Calif. The driver, a father of two, died.

The NTSB’s action means Tesla no longer has access to information and findings before they become official at the end of the NTSB investigation, which could take a year or longer to complete. The sharing process is in place so that companies can respond and make safety changes quickly for the benefit of the public. 

At the same time, the NTSB says releasing incomplete information in the middle of an investigation can “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’s involvement is a signal of the stakes involved—the safety board, often associated with aviation accident investigations, looks into only a handful of the millions of U.S. highway accidents each year.

Advocates Call for Name Change

Tesla’s Autopilot is a suite of driver-assist systems that provide adaptive cruise control and lane-centering features, among others. Tesla stresses that the system is not meant to be fully autonomous and that a driver must remain constantly engaged with the task of driving.

But safety advocates, including Consumers Union, the advocacy division of Consumer Reports, say the name Autopilot is misleading and that Tesla should change it to something that more accurately reflects the system’s abilities and limitations. The advocates also say Tesla should provide the data to back up the automaker’s claims about how Autopilot improves the safety of vehicles that have it installed.

“Tesla markets itself as an innovator,” says David Friedman, CU’s director of cars and product policy and analysis. “The company should not make either specific or broad safety claims without providing the detailed data to back them up. They should show, not just tell, us how safe their system is.”

The NTSB typically takes a year or more to complete an investigation, looking at everything from a driver’s cell-phone records and prescription drugs to automakers’ engineering decisions and government regulators’ oversight of a particular transportation mode. Once on the scene, the NTSB takes charge of an investigation, and involved parties usually sign an agreement not to release crash details without specific approval from the safety board.

Over the past few weeks, Tesla has published blog postings and made several public statements, releasing details that make it seem like Autopilot was functioning correctly and the driver was to blame. 

“Tesla Autopilot does not prevent all accidents—such a standard would be impossible—but it makes them much less likely to occur,” Tesla said on its blog March 30. “It unequivocally makes the world safer for the vehicle occupants, pedestrians and cyclists.”

In response to questions from Consumer Reports, Tesla said it releases information about crashes to correct misinformation, either from the drivers involved or from erroneous media reports. 

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