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Elon Musk’s lawyers argue recordings of him touting Tesla Autopilot safety could be deepfakes

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A California state judge issued a tentative order requiring Tesla Inc. Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk to give a deposition in a lawsuit blaming Autopilot for a fatal crash in 2018.

Tesla’s argument for why Musk shouldn’t be required to testify is “deeply troubling to the court,” Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Evette D. Pennypacker said in the order.

The electric-car maker argued that it couldn’t vouch for the authenticity of videotaped interviews in which Musk touted the company’s driver-assistance technology, saying it’s possible some of them were digitally altered.

“Their position is that because Mr. Musk is famous and might be more of a target for deep fakes, his public statements are immune,” the judge wrote. “In other words, Mr. Musk, and others in his position, can simply say whatever they like in the public domain, then hide behind the potential for their recorded statements being a deep fake to avoid taking ownership of what they did actually say and do.”

Tesla faces multiple lawsuits and federal investigations over whether its assisted driving feature is defective. Bloomberg News reported in October that federal prosecutors and securities regulators were probing whether the company made misleading statements about its vehicles’ automated-driving capabilities.

While judges often spare chief executive officers and other high-ranking officials from having to give depositions, Pennypacker said Musk can be questioned for up to three hours about certain statements he made about Tesla’s assisted driving features. His testimony would add to hundreds of hours of depositions already given by other witnesses in the case, which has been scheduled to go to trial this year. 

A hearing on the tentative ruling is set for Thursday in San Jose, where lawyers for Tesla can try to persuade the judge to change her mind. The ruling was reported earlier by Reuters.

Tesla and its lawyers in the case didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

The lawsuit was brought by the family of Walter Huang, an Apple Inc. engineer who died during his morning commute when his 2017 Model X veered into a concrete barrier on a highway about 45 minutes south of San Francisco. The family claims the Autopilot system malfunctioned and steered the car into the median.

According to Tesla, Huang’s hands were not detected on the steering wheel multiple times during the 19 minutes leading up to the crash, during which Autopilot issued two visual and one audible alert for hands-off driving. Huang was playing the video game Three Kingdoms on his phone at the time of the crash, according to an investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board.

Lawyers for the Huang family have sought documents from Tesla to back up numerous public statements by Musk between 2014 and 2017 about the company’s progress developing self-driving technology. Some of those statements have been cited in recent consumer lawsuits accusing Tesla of failing to deliver on Musk’s longstanding promise to produce a fully self-driving car.

The family’s lawyers argued that Tesla has failed to adequately respond to their demands for information during the pretrial discovery process and asked the judge to sanction the company.

But Pennypacker denied that request in Wednesday’s ruling.

“It is clear to the court that Tesla made efforts to respond to plaintiffs’ discovery requests,” she wrote. “In some cases, plaintiffs simply do not like the answers received.”

The case is Huang v. Tesla Inc., 19CV346663, California Superior Court, Santa Clara County (San Jose).

(Updates with more details from ruling)

–With assistance from Dana Hull.



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