War of words, actions ensues between Tesla, NTSB after I-Team reports

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. (KGO) -- Tesla's response to this week's I-Team interview with the widow of Tesla owner Walter Huang was the last straw for the National Transportation Safety Board.

Thursday, the agency kicked Tesla off the probe into the deadly crash, for "releasing investigative information before it was vetted and confirmed by the NTSB."

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A letter released by the NTSB Thursday shows that Tesla drew criticism from the agency because of statements the company made in response to two I-Team investigations.

Friday, March 30 on the 6 p.m. edition of ABC7 News, the I-Team investigated the Tesla crash in Mountain View that killed 38-year-old Walter Huang. ABC7 News investigative reporter Dan Noyes rode to the scene in the same tyope of Tesla, a Model X, while on Autopilot.

"I see what the issue is," said Dan Noyes. "That line in the pavement could potentially be a problem."

Right after that report, Tesla issued a statement confirming Autopilot was on at the time but that Huang had his hands off the wheel for six seconds right before impact. Tesla advises drivers to keep hands on the wheel and remain alert at all times.

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The letter from NTSB Chair Robert Sumwalt says this past Friday night in a phone call, he warned Tesla CEO Elon Musk about releasing information about an ongoing investigation.

Then came Tuesday night's I-Team report featuring an interview with Huang's widow, brother, and the lawyer they've hired to sue Tesla.

"I just try not to cry in front of my child because they feel afraid," said Huang's wife Sevonne.

"Unfortunately, it appears that Tesla has tried to blame the victim here," said Huang attorney Mark Fong.

After that report, Tesla released another statement that read,"...the only way for this accident to have occurred is if Mr. Huang was not paying attention to the road, despite the car providing multiple warnings to do so," adding, "The reason that other families are not on TV is because their loved ones are still alive."

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And that statement, according to the NTSB's letter, led to another phone call from the NTSB Chairman just Wednesday night, in which he informed Elon Musk the agency was removing the company from participating in the crash investigation.

"It is unfortunate that Tesla, by its actions, did not abide by the party agreement," wrote NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt. "Uncoordinated releases of incomplete information do not further transportation safety or serve the public interest."

Tesla is firing back, writing Thursday afternoon: "It's been clear in our conversations with the NNTSB that they're more concerned with press headlines than actually promoting safety."

The company accuses federal investigators of releasing "partial bits of incomplete information to the media in violation of their own rules at the same time they were trying to prevent us from telling all the facts."

Tesla says they're going to make an official complaint to Congress about the NTSB. An attorney for the family sent me a statement late today saying, "Tesla appears more concerned about blaming Mr. Huang and less interested in the safety of drivers using its Autopilot system."

Read the full statement from Tesla: "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."

Read the full statement from Huang's family: "Tesla's comments blaming the victim for the crash were both insensitive and inaccurate. Tesla's claim today that it "withdrew" from the NTSB probe into the crash was likewise inaccurate. The rift between the NTSB and Tesla shows Tesla appears to be more concerned about blaming Mr. Huang and less interested in the safety of drivers using its Autopilot system."

Read the full press release from the Huang family lawyer: The family of Walter Huang, who died March 23, 2018, in a Tesla car crash, has hired the Minami Tamaki LLP law firm to explore legal options for them.

Huang died from fatal injuries suffered when the "Autopilot" of his 2017 Tesla Model X drove his car into the unprotected edge of a concrete highway median that was missing its crash guard.

The firm's preliminary review has uncovered complaints by other Tesla drivers of navigational errors by the Autopilot feature, and other lawsuits have also made this complaint. The firm believes Tesla's Autopilot feature is defective and likely caused Huang's death, despite Tesla's apparent attempt to blame the victim of this terrible tragedy.

The Huang family intends to file a wrongful death lawsuit against Tesla and, possibly, its subcontractors involved in the design and construction of the Autopilot system. The grounds for the suit may include product liability, defective product design, failure to warn, breach of warranty, intentional and negligent misrepresentation, and false advertising. The family may also file a lawsuit against the California Department of Transportation for dangerous condition of public property.

"Mrs. Huang lost her husband, and two children lost their father," said B. Mark Fong, a partner at Minami Tamaki LLP. "The family wants to investigate this incident and help ensure that this tragedy does not happen to other consumers who buy semi-autonomous vehicles. Our goal as the family's attorneys is to protect public safety, by ensuring the technology behind semi-autonomous cars is safe before it is released on the roads, and its risks are not misrepresented to the public."

Minami Tamaki's preliminary review indicates that the navigation system of the Tesla may have misread the lane lines on the roadway, failed to detect the concrete median, failed to brake the car, and drove the car into the median. In addition, the concrete highway median was missing its crash attenuator guard, as Caltrans failed to replace the guard after an earlier crash there. The lack of a guard potentially increased Huang's injuries.

Huang is survived by his wife of ten years, Sevonne, and their son and daughter, ages 3 and 6. He was a loving father to his children, a devoted husband, and a dedicated son who supported his elderly parents financially.

If you or someone you know has information relating to Tesla's Autopilot or the incident involving Walter Huang, please contact attorney B. Mark Fong at markfong@minamitamaki.net or at 415-851-1497.

Click here for full coverage on the Tesla crash by ABC7 News and the I-Team.

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