The company stepped up its language in a response to a local TV news report in which the family of the driver, Walter Huang, said he was a careful driver and had complained about Autopilot malfunctioning before the March 23 accident that took his life.
The family has hired an attorney to represent them.
In addition, Tesla's battle with the National Transportation Safety Board over the ongoing crash investigation is heating up. The NTSB noted on April 12 that it had kicked the company off the probe because it broke an agreement with the board by disclosing information before the investigation was finished. Tesla has issued its own statement attacking the NTSB and claiming the company withdrew from the investigation on its own.
Earlier this week, Tesla told local TV station KGO that Huang, 38, must not have been paying attention to the road at the time of the accident.
"The crash happened on a clear day with several hundred feet of visibility ahead, which means that 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," according to a company statement, which appears in full in KGO's story.
Tesla noted in a blog post last month that it appeared Huang had not been watching the road or steering, but at the time it didn't say that was the only way the crash could have occurred.
Drivers are still responsible for controlling the car when Autopilot is engaged, and the system warns drivers of this every time they turn on the system, according to Tesla. The company also repeated its claim that Autopilot has improved driving safety by reducing crashes, citing National Highway Traffic Safety Administration statistics.
"We empathize with Mr. Huang's family, who are understandably facing loss and grief, but the false impression that Autopilot is unsafe will cause harm to others on the road," the Tesla statement noted. "NHTSA found that even the early version of Tesla Autopilot resulted in 40% fewer crashes and it has improved substantially since then. The reason that other families are not on TV is because their loved ones are still alive."
Tesla's response to the KGO report triggered Tesla's removal from the investigation into the crash, according to a letter from NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt to Tesla CEO Elon Musk on Thursday. In the letter, he said the NTSB had told Musk that Tesla was removed from the probe during a phone call on Wednesday.
Tesla's statement to KGO improperly included incomplete information as well as speculation about the cause of the crash, even though the company had been warned the week before about releasing data from an active investigation, the Board said in its press release. Such investigations commonly take 12 to 24 months.
"Such releases of incomplete information 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 noted.
On top of the fallout with the NTSB, Tesla's response to the TV report on Tuesday did no favors to the company's image, a crisis communications expert told The Connected Car.
"It shows an insensitivity on Tesla's part towards the family of the crash victim," said Fred Bateman, CEO and founder of the public relations firm Bateman Group. "People hate when technology companies act like nothing should stand in the way of innovation."
— Stephen Lawson is a freelance writer based in San Francisco. Follow him on Twitter @sdlawsonmedia.