Elon, or deepfake? Musk must face questions on Autopilot statements

April 28, 2023 - 5:21 PM
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Tesla CEO Elon Musk attends the Tesla Shanghai Gigafactory groundbreaking ceremony in Shanghai, China January 7, 2019. (Reuters/Aly Song/File Photo)

A California judge on Wednesday ordered Tesla CEO Elon Musk to be interviewed under oath about whether he made certain statements regarding the safety and capabilities of the carmaker’s Autopilot features.

The ruling, first reported by Reuters, came in a lawsuit filed by the family of Walter Huang against Tesla in Santa Clara Superior Court, over a car crash which killed the Apple engineer in 2018. Tesla’s lawyers has said Musk cannot recall the details of his statements that the plaintiffs want to ask him about, and that the billionaire celebrity CEO is often the subject of convincing “deepfake” videos.

Huang’s family argues Tesla’s partially automated driving software failed. The carmaker contends Huang was playing a videogame on his phone before the crash and disregarded vehicle warnings.

Plaintiff attorneys sought to depose Musk regarding recorded statements that tout the capabilities of Autopilot. The ruling that Musk must testify was tentative, and a hearing was set for Thursday on whether to depose him. California judges often issue tentative rulings, which are almost always finalized with few major changes after such a hearing.

Musk will likely be asked about a 2016 statement cited by plaintiffs, in which he allegedly said: “A Model S and Model X, at this point, can drive autonomously with greater safety than a person. Right now.”

Tesla opposed the request in court filings, arguing that Musk cannot recall details about statements.

In addition Musk, “like many public figures, is the subject of many ‘deepfake’ videos and audio recordings that purport to show him saying and doing things he never actually said or did,” Tesla said.

Judge Evette Pennypacker tentatively ordered a limited, three-hour deposition where Musk could be asked whether he actually made the statements on the recordings, and called Tesla’s arguments “deeply troubling.”

“Their position is that because Mr. Musk is famous and might be more of a target for deep fakes, his public statements are immune,” Pennypacker wrote, adding that such arguments would allow Musk and other famous people “to avoid taking ownership of what they did actually say and do.”

The plaintiffs also claim that Musk finalized the details of a 2016 promotional video that states, “The car is driving itself.” The video displayed some features that did not exist at the time, the plaintiffs said, citing multiple Tesla engineers.

Musk, Tesla and an attorney for Huang’s family did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The lawsuit is scheduled to go into trial on July 31, adding to growing legal and regulatory scrutiny over Tesla’s Autopilot system.

A California state court jury on Friday found Tesla’s Autopilot feature did not fail in what appeared to be the first trial related to a crash involving the partially automated driving software.

—Reporting by Dan Levine and Hyunjoo Jin in San Francisco; Editing by Marguerita Choy and David Gregorio