By Hyunjoo Jin and Dan Levine
April 26 (Reuters) – A California judge on Wednesday ordered Tesla Chief Executive Elon Musk to be interviewed under oath about whether he made certain statements about the safety and capabilities of the automaker’s Autopilot features.
The ruling, first reported by Reuters, came in a lawsuit filed by Walter Huang’s family against Tesla in Santa Clara Superior Court over a car crash that killed the Apple engineer in 2018. Tesla’s lawyers have said Musk cannot remember the details of his statements the plaintiffs want to ask him about, and that the billionaire celebrity CEO is often the subject of compelling “deepfake” videos.
Huang’s family claims Tesla’s partially automated driving software failed. The automaker claims Huang was playing a video game on his phone before the crash and ignored vehicle warnings.
Plaintiffs’ lawyers sought to impeach Musk regarding recorded statements touting Autopilot’s capabilities. The decision to have Musk testify was tentative, and a hearing was set for Thursday on whether to impeach him. California judges often issue preliminary rulings, which are almost always finalized with few major changes after such a hearing.
Musk is likely to be asked about a 2016 statement cited by plaintiffs in which he allegedly said, “A Model S and Model X can at this point drive autonomously with greater safety than a person. Right now.”
Tesla opposed the request in court filings, claiming that Musk cannot remember details of statements.
In addition, Musk, “like many public figures, is the subject of many ‘deepfake’ videos and audio recordings purporting 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 tapes, calling Tesla’s arguments “deeply troubling.”
“Their position is that because Mr. Musk is famous and perhaps 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 to take ownership of what they actually said and did.”
The plaintiffs also allege that Musk finalized details in a 2016 promotional video that says, “The car is driving itself.” The video showed some features that did not exist at the time, the plaintiffs said, citing several Tesla engineers.
Musk, Tesla and a lawyer for Huang’s family did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The lawsuit is scheduled to go to court on July 31, adding to the growing legal and regulatory scrutiny of Tesla’s Autopilot system.
A California state jury on Friday found Tesla’s Autopilot feature not at fault in what appeared to be the first lawsuit 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)