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Tesla wants Apple's help to beat Autopilot death lawsuit

A Tesla

Tesla wants Apple to testify in an upcoming wrongful death lawsuit over its Autopilot feature, by proving the Apple engineer behind the wheel was playing games instead of paying attention.

Tesla faces a trial on April 8 over a fatal crash from 2018 involving its Autopilot feature, and whether its software is at fault for a car accident. However, lawyers representing the family of the deceased driver, Apple engineer Wei "Walter" Huang" has accused Apple of working with Tesla to help its case.

A pretrial motion filed earlier this week says Apple was "engaging in a secret discovery work-around to help support Tesla in its defense of the pending case," reports The Verge.

In the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board's initial decision on the crash, it determined that the 2018 crash in Mountain View, California was caused by Autopilot on a Tesla Model X failing to recognize an obstacle, resulting in a 71 mile-per-hour crash into a highway barrier. The initial crash was followed by impacts from two other cars, as well as a fire from a battery breach.

At the time, the NTSB determined that an iPhone used by Huang had a strategy game as its frontmost app at the time of the crash. However, log data wasn't enough to determine whether he was actively playing the game during the crash itself.

The logs did indicate there was a "pattern of active game play" that coincided with morning commute hours, while data transmissions before the impact were "consistent with online game activity." The family says that Huang had the game running passively.

Ultimately, the NTSB reported that the data was "not specific enough to ascertain whether the Tesla driver was holding the phone at the time of the crash."

A new declaration

The family is unhappy about a decision by Tesla to submit a declaration from Apple engineer James Harding, stating that Apple had determined Huang was actively playing a game at the time of the crash.

Furthermore, Tesla and Apple are accused of "trying to circumvent the discovery process" by using Harding's word as testimony instead of a deposition. The deposition is also submitted five months after the end of the discovery period, which meant that the family's lawyers couldn't question Harding before the trial itself.

The lawyers have subpoenaed Apple for more information about the declaration. Apple responded in March that the lawyers were seeking "a substantial volume of Apple's privileged material."

In its application to quash the subpoena, Apple said it is not a party to the case, and hadn't received any notice of entry of order for the dispute. "While Apple is ready to work in good faith with the Parties and to fulfill its obligations as a non-party witness, it is very unclear on its present obligations and seeks guidance from the Court," its lawyers wrote.

The declaration could be crucial to Tesla's defense strategy, as the car maker believes that Autopilot is safe to use, and that it only becomes a danger when drivers are not paying attention to the road.