By Kirsten Korosec
April 12, 2018

Tesla has withdrawn from a party agreement with the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) as the agency investigates a fatal crash involving a Model X and the company’s semi-autonomous Autopilot system, a move that gives the automaker the freedom to share information that could influence public perception.

The decision follows a series of public statements made by Tesla since the March 23 fatal crash in Mountain View, Calif. that killed 38-year-old Walter Huang. Tesla made the decision to “withdraw” to preempt NTSB’s plan to kick the automaker out of the agreement. NTSB told Tesla on Wednesday it was being removed from the investigation, the agency said in a statement released Thursday.

Tesla issued its own statement Wednesday night.

On Wednesday, Tesla said Huang is at fault, not the semi-autonomous Autopilot system that was engaged when the 2017 Model X SUV slammed into a highway divider that was missing its crash guard. Tesla issued the statement blaming the Huang, after his family had hired a law firm to explore legal options for them.

Tesla decided late Wednesday to withdraw from the party agreement because it prohibits the company from releasing information about the crash.

“Today, 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 said in an emailed statement. “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.”

NTSB can grant part status to any organization or company that is able to provide technical assistance in an investigation. Under this rule, parties must sign an agreement that explicitly prohibits them from releasing investigative information to the media or to comment or analyze investigative findings without prior consultation with the NTSB. The agency put this practice in place to prevent any party member from unfairly influencing the public perception of the investigative findings. Once the investigation is completed, all such restrictions are lifted.

Tesla’s statement blaming Huang for the crash was its third public since the Mar. 23 crash in an effort to distance itself from the fatality. Tesla previously said Huang’s hands were not on the steering wheel for six seconds prior to the collision.

Autopilot is marketed by Tesla as a semi-autonomous driving system, rather than fully autonomous that handles all aspects of driving in certain conditions without expectation of the driver’s involvement. Autopilot includes several features like an automatic steering function that helps drivers steer within a lane, adaptive cruise control that maintains the car’s speed in relation to surrounding traffic, and an auto lane change feature that is supposed to move the vehicle into an adjacent lane automatically when the turn signal is activated—but only when it’s safe to do so.

Tesla’s system does give warnings to remind drivers to keep hands on the wheel when Autopilot is activated. However, not all drivers heed those warnings, and Tesla has been criticized for failing to protect against misuse of the system. A fatal May 2016 crash in Florida was caused partly by the driver overly relying on Autopilot, according to a NTSB investigation.

Editor’s note: The article was updated at 5:30 p.m. ET with information that NTSB had informed Tesla and its CEO Elon Musk that the company was being removed as party to the investigation.

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