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Tesla removed from Autopilot crash investigation, NTSB says

Tesla claimed that it left the investigation before being booted, but the NTSB's statement tells a different story.

Update, 3:52 p.m. ET: Adjusted the text to reflect the NTSB's official statement and Tesla's response.

The National Transportation Safety Board is still investigating the Tesla Model X crash that claimed a man's life in California, and while Tesla was involved in that investigation up until Thursday, it will play a smaller role going forward.

Tesla is no longer part of the probe into the fatal accident, according to statements from both Tesla and the NTSB. The move is due to Tesla's preference for making information public before the investigation concluded, but the two parties dispute whose decision it was. 

"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," Tesla's original statement reads, sent Wednesday night. "We believe in transparency, so an agreement that prevents public release of information for over a year is unacceptable. Even though we won't be a formal party, we will continue to provide technical assistance to the NTSB."

We'll update this story when the NTSB posts its press release about Tesla's departure.

Tim Stevens/Roadshow

According to the NTSB's statement on Thursday, however, it was the federal investigatory body that revoked Tesla's party status for "releasing investigative information before it was vetted and confirmed by the NTSB." Less than two weeks ago, the NTSB told The Washington Post that it was "unhappy" with Tesla's decision to issue statements and divulge vehicle information during the investigation. The NTSB's full statement can be found on its website.

Tesla responded to the NTSB's statement with its own on Thursday, and it's a doozy. "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," the statement begins. "On Tuesday, we chose to withdraw from the agreement and issued a statement to correct misleading claims that had been made about Autopilot." So, Tesla's sticking to its guns that it quit as opposed to being fired.

Tesla goes on to claim that the NTSB sent out misleading information itself, apparently in violation of its own rules. "We don't believe this is right and we will be making an official complaint to Congress," the statement says. "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." The statement included a reminder that both its large cars received five stars in all categories and subcategories during NHTSA testing.

In case you're wondering what "party status" is, the NTSB explains in its statement: "Participation in the party system is a privilege, which allows the sharing of investigative information with all parties that agree to the terms of the party agreement (PDF) during the early fact-gathering phase of an investigation. This sharing ensures that a party to an investigation has sufficient information to take any immediate actions necessary to ensure safety." So Tesla will still be part of the investigation, but it won't have access to all the information it had before. The automaker is still party to other ongoing NTSB investigations involving Tesla vehicles.

Autopilot is an important part of the company's portfolio, both in terms of what it can offer now and what it can potentially offer in the future. Tesla still believes that Autopilot will continue to improve and eventually morph to true autonomy, as opposed to its current status as a semiautonomous driver aid.

If the NTSB were to come out and blame Autopilot for the collision, it could affect consumer confidence in that tech and semiautonomous aids in general. A similar effect came immediately in the wake of Uber's fatal crash last month.