April 12, 2018 / 3:39 PM / 3 months ago

Tesla withdraws as party to NTSB 'Autopilot' crash investigation

WASHINGTON, April 12 (Reuters) - Tesla Inc said it is withdrawing as a formal party to the National Transportation Safety Board’s probe into a fatal March 23 crash in California in which the semi-autonomous “Autopilot” driving system was in use.

The automaker’s unusual step means it may not be privy to some information obtained by investigators before it is made public. Tesla’s announcement, made late Wednesday in California, came after the company publicly blamed the driver for the crash and made a series of statements about the incident that drew criticism from the NTSB.

Driver Walter Huang died in last month’s crash and vehicle fire in a Tesla Inc Model X near Mountain View, California, prompting investigations by the NTSB and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Tesla said in a statement it withdrew because the party agreement with the NTSB required “that we not release information about Autopilot to the public, a requirement which we believe fundamentally affects public safety negatively.” Autopilot is a semi-autonomous system that handles some driving tasks.

NTSB spokesman Peter Knudson declined to comment on a Bloomberg News report that the board had removed Tesla’s party status before the company’s announcement, but said the agency would issue a formal statement later on Thursday. Being a party to an NTSB investigation requires participants to agree to limits on the “dissemination of investigation information,” the NTSB website says.

Tesla chief executive Elon Musk and NTSB chairman Robert Sumwalt spoke over the weekend. Sumwalt told Reuters on Tuesday the NTSB had a good working relationship with Tesla, but added that companies must follow the rules if they are a formal party.

In its statement, Tesla said “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.”

Huang’s family said on Wednesday it had hired law firm Minami Tamaki LLP to explore legal options, adding the law firm believed the Autopilot feature probably caused his death. The firm said its preliminary review of the crash suggested Autopilot was defective and said it had uncovered complaints by other Tesla drivers of navigational errors by the system.

The NTSB has not disclosed any findings from the probe.

Tesla has said Huang had activated Autopilot and it was in operation at the time of the crash. The company said vehicle logs from the accident showed no action had been taken by Huang before the crash and that he had received warnings from the system to put his hands on the wheel.

While sympathizing with the family, Tesla again blamed Huang on Wednesday, saying the driver was well aware that Autopilot was not perfect and, specifically, he had previously told them it was not reliable in that exact location, but nonetheless he engaged Autopilot.

Tesla said the Autopilot system always reminds drivers to be alert and to have hands on the wheel.

The NTSB confirmed earlier this week it has two other pending investigations of other Tesla crashes, including a probe of an August 2017 Tesla battery fire in Lake Forest, California, that occurred after an owner lost control and ran into his garage. That fire probe had not previously been reported. (Reporting by David Shepardson Editing by Frances Kerry)

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