Tesla and NTSB Squabble Over Crash; America Tries to Figure Out How to Market 'Mobility' Responsibly

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky
tesla and ntsb squabble over crash america tries to figure out how to market

The National Transportation Safety Board, which is currently investigating last month’s fatal crash involving Tesla’s Autopilot system, has removed the electric automaker from the case after it improperly disclosed details of the investigation.

Since nothing can ever be simple, Tesla Motors claims it left the investigation voluntarily. It also accused the NTSB of violating its own rules and placing an emphasis on getting headlines, rather than promoting safety and allowing the brand to provide information to the public. Tesla said it plans to make an official complaint to Congress on the matter.

The fallout came after the automaker disclosed what the NTSB considered to be investigative information before it was vetted and confirmed by the investigative team. On March 30th, Tesla issued a release stating the driver had received several visual and one audible hands-on warning before the accident. It also outlined items it believed attributed to the brutality of the crash and appeared to attribute blame to the vehicle’s operator. The NTSB claims any release of incomplete information runs the risk of promoting speculation and incorrect assumptions about the probable cause of a crash, doing a “disservice to the investigative process and the traveling public.”

While it’s understandable that an automaker would want to divert negative attention away from itself, the decision to disclose details about the crash led directly to the National Transportation Safety Board cutting ties with Tesla.

“It is unfortunate that Tesla, by its actions, did not abide by the party agreement,” said NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt on Thursday. “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.”

“There is nothing in the party agreement that prevents a company from enacting swift and effective measures to counter a threat to public safety,” Sumwalt continued. “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.”

The organization also released a letter addressed to Tesla CEO Elon Musk, explaining why it decided to revoke the automaker’s party status, and noted a prior phone call of a similar nature.

Tesla fired back, saying the NTSB doesn’t adhere to its own rules and telling CNBC that it withdrew from the NTSB investigation by its own action:

“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.”

The statement goes on to suggest the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that an earlier version of Tesla’s Autopilot resulted in 40 percent fewer crashes (which we could not confirm) and notes it is the presiding regulatory body for automobiles — not the NTSB. This is technically true; the National Transportation Safety Board is an independent U.S. government investigative agency. However, it does make recommendations based on its findings and has served as an advisor for other regulatory groups in the past.

Regardless, with its agreement with the NTSB now broken, Tesla can now say whatever it wants about the accident while the investigation continues in relative silence. The automaker clearly doesn’t want to come across as looking irresponsible in the aftermath of this tragic incident and has already made a soft defense for itself. We imagine the NTSB will reach a conclusion similar to what it found in the Florida Autopilot crash — saying the vehicle’s operational limits played a major role while emphasizing driver responsibility.

There might also be some discussion of how semi-autonomous features are being marketed to consumers. Right now, numerous manufacturers are mobilizing legal teams to address the building pressure to safely employ autonomous features and electronic driving aids. We’ve repeatedly mentioned how these features allow motorist to tune out and put undeserved trust into systems that simply aren’t ready to do all the driving. But the one-two punch of fatal crashes involving Uber and Tesla vehicles has brought the issue under the microscope for the rest of the nation.

It’s worth noting that Tesla is by no means the only manufacturer at risk here. Any company deploying advanced driving aids that allow the vehicle to maneuver itself can fall into the trap. Deciding who to blame in the event of a crash is another story. Ultimately, a vehicle’s operator is responsible for safety, but the existence of cars that can steer and stop themselves really complicates things. If a carmaker bills its technology as “able to drive itself” or even hints at it, it could be liable when things play out poorly.

On Friday, attorneys for the domestic arms of Volkswagen, Toyota, Hyundai, and Continental came forward to emphasize the importance of helping the public understand the limits of advanced driving aids.

“The OEMs right now are trying really hard to accurately describe what this equipment can do and can’t do,” said Tom Vanderford, associate general counsel at Hyundai, at an American Bar Association conference in Phoenix, Arizona.

We’re elated to hear automakers addressing these concerns, but we also wonder how much good it will do. Bolstering the public’s understanding of these systems and adding safety protocols that force human involvement are great. But it doesn’t stop the growing assumption that regular use of these aids probably degrades a person’s driving skills, and the problems that entails.

Back in 2016, longtime automotive analyst Maryann Keller suggested the automation of the automotive industry could mimic what happened with aviation. Fatal airplane crashes declined dramatically since the 1970s, but pilots’ growing reliance on automated systems created entirely new problems. As a result, the Federal Aviation Administration released a 2013 Safety Alert for Operators that warned “continuous use of [autoflight] systems does not reinforce a pilot’s knowledge and skills in manual flight operations.” The alert went on to say that regular use of such systems could “lead to degradation of the pilot’s ability to quickly recover the aircraft from an undesired state.”

Keller claimed motorists would face similar troubles when driving aids fail or are incapable of mitigating certain situations (bad weather, poorly marked roads, system failures, etc.). She also said potential distractions are likely to increase as these systems become more popular. “Incorporating electronic interfaces within the car for phone calls, texting, or entertainment will begin to occupy more attention from drivers in all levels of automated vehicles — and already the dangers of such distraction are well known,” Keller said.

Things certainly seem to be heading in that direction. Numerous manufacturers are dabbling with in-car marketing and center touch screens now resemble smartphones in both form and function. If you don’t have the self-control to use it responsibly, automotive multimedia posses a serious potential for distracted driving. Semi-autonomous driving systems only exacerbate the problem.

In the long run, our biggest gripes with vehicular autonomy will probably revolve around the lost art of driving and how automakers have warped cars into mobile computers. Safety will continue to improve as refinement grows and Level 5 autonomy becomes a reality. Still, we could be in for a bumpy ride as everyone attempts to figure out how to drive, or market (in the case of automakers), vehicles utilizing technology that corrupts a driver’s skills but doesn’t have the ability to surpass them.

[Image: KGO-TV]

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  • Conundrum Conundrum on Apr 13, 2018

    When was the last (or first for that matter) time Boeing or Airbus or any aviation company told the NTSB to get lost during a crash investigation? Never, I would suggest. But Elon Musk, entrepreneur extraordinaire and boy genius, has no such qualms about blaring utter BS about the NTSB. Just like any internet keyboard warrior with limited typing ability and zero experience in a field of endeavor, he is ten times smarter than professional accident investigators ever were or ever have been. Why shouldn't supermarket shelf-stockers run the world powered by ignorance? After all, Autopilot SAVES lives Musk says, on the basis of no proof whatsoevdt, so all the government investigators should just bugger off and let him attend to important things, like making body panels fit properly on the Model 3. Oh yes, our genius was going to show those old-timey automakers how to build cars. Just like he knows Tesla never makes any mistakes whatsoever. Pfft.

    • Dilrod Dilrod on Apr 14, 2018

      I was thinking the same thing. Being an "industry disruptor" has gone to his head. You can't reinvent damage control; there are reasons why companies keep their mouths shut and work with investigators. Anyone whose dealt with OSHA understands this. Mr. Musk is a charlatan who has grown too big for his britches. I'm afraid he won't learn until someone sues him silly.

  • EBFlex EBFlex on Apr 13, 2018

    ^^^ Musk lying yet again? Say it isn't so!

  • SilverCoupe I am one of those people whose Venn diagram of interests would include Audis and Formula One.I am not so much into Forums, though. I spend enough time just watching the races.
  • Jeff S Definitely and very soon. Build a hybrid pickup and price it in the Maverick price range. Toyota if they can do this soon could grab the No 1 spot from Maverick.
  • MaintenanceCosts Would be a neat car if restored, and a lot of good parts are there. But also a lot of very challenging obstacles, even just from what we can see from the pictures. It's going to be hard to justify a restoration financially.
  • Jeff S Ford was in a slump during this era and its savior was a few years away from being introduced. The 1986 Taurus and Sable saved Ford from bankruptcy and Ford bet the farm on them. Ford was also helped by the 1985 downsize front wheel drive full sized GM cars. Lincoln even spoofed these new full size GM cars in an ad basically showing it was hard to tell the difference between a Cadillac, Buick, and Oldsmobile. This not only helped Lincoln sales but Mercury Grand Marquis and Ford Crown Victoria sales. For GM full size buyers that liked the downsized GM full size 77 to 84 they had the Panther based Lincoln Town Cars, Mercury Grand Marquis, and Ford Crown Victorias that were an alternative to the new GM front wheel drive full size cars that had many issues when they were introduced in 1985 and many of those issues were not resolved for several years. The Marks were losing popularity after the Mark Vs.
  • SCE to AUX Toyota the follower, as usual. It will be 5 years before such a vehicle is available.I can't think of anything innovative from them since the Gen 1 Prius. Even their mythical solid state battery remains vaporware.They look like pre-2009 General Motors. They could fall hard.