The National Transportation Safety Board told Tesla Inc. on Wednesday that the carmaker was being removed from the investigation of a fatal accident, prior to the company announcing it had withdrawn from it, according to a person familiar with the discussion.
NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt relayed the decision in a call to Tesla’s Elon Musk that was described as tense by the person because the chief executive officer was unhappy with the safety board’s action. NTSB is expected to make a formal announcement in a release later Thursday, said the person, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The unusual move followed public statements by the company blaming the driver of a Tesla Model X who died in a March collision, in apparent violation of agency protocols. The NTSB guards the integrity of its investigations closely, demanding that participants adhere to rules about what information they can release and their expected cooperation. These so-called parties to investigations must sign legal agreements laying out their responsibilities.
Companies that no longer have formal status as a party to an NTSB investigation can lose access to information uncovered in the probe and the ability to shape the official record of the incident, said Peter Goelz, a former managing director at the NTSB who is now senior vice president at O’Neill & Associates, a Washington lobbying and public relations firm.
The safety board has in some cases thrown airlines, aircraft manufacturers and unions off of investigations in cases where they were either making unauthorized statements or not producing information the NTSB expected of them.
NTSB rules don’t in fact prohibit participants in investigations from releasing general information about their products. The agency’s oft-repeated rule of thumb is that factual information that could have been released before an accident can be put out afterward as well.
What the NTSB prohibits is the release of information related to the accident itself.
In December 2010, the safety board removed American Airlines, now part of American Airlines Group Inc., from an investigation into a runway accident in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. American had taken one of the plane’s two crash-proof recorders and downloaded its contents prior to turning the device over to the agency.
In 2014, it kicked United Parcel Service Inc. and its pilots’ union off of a probe into a cargo-jet crash that killed two people in Alabama. The safety board said then that the company and union “took actions prejudicial to the investigation by issuing comments and analyzing findings before the NTSB had met to determine a cause.”
This is no surprise.
Tesla, despite the fact that it makes cars, is still a dotcom company at its core, and ignoring regulators, and ignoring basic common decency, is at the core of its ethos.
It’s why I have no interest in owning a Tesla, to quote Richard Feynman, “Nature cannot be fooled.”