Tesla CEO Elon Musk might be ordered to testify under oath in a lawsuit that blames Autopilot, Tesla’s advanced driver assistance system, for a fatal crash in 2018.
The tentative ruling, issued by a California judge Wednesday and first reported on by Reuters, came in a wrongful death lawsuit filed by the family of Walter Huang against Tesla over a crash that killed the Apple engineer.
The plaintiff attorneys want to bring Musk to court to testify on recorded statements the billionaire executive made about the capabilities of Autopilot.
Musk had previously tweeted a 2016 promotional video for Autopilot as evidence that Tesla “drives itself” with “no human input at all.” In January, Ashok Elluswamy, director of Autopilot software at Tesla, testified that the video was staged using 3D mapping on a predetermined route, rather than relying on cameras, sensors and onboard compute power to actually drive autonomously.
Huang’s family argue that the deceased over-relied on the partially automated driving software, which failed him in the end. Tesla claims that Huang was playing a video game on his phone before the crash and didn’t pay attention to vehicle warnings.
A hearing was set for Thursday on whether to depose Musk.
Reuters reports that Musk will likely be questioned 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’s lawyers have opposed the request in court filings. They said Musk can’t recall the details of statements plaintiffs want to question him on, and that he is often the subject of “deepfake” videos, according to Reuters.
Judge Evette Pennypacker of Santa Clara Superior Court said Tesla’s arguments were “deeply troubling” because they imply that as a famous person, Musk is more of a target for deepfakes, which would make his public statements immune. The result would be that Musk and other famous people could in future avoid taking ownership of what they say and do.
TechCrunch could not get a comment from Tesla, which disbanded its press office in 2020.
The lawsuit is scheduled to go to trial on July 31. It will add to the growing list of litigation and regulatory scrutiny into the automaker for its Autopilot system, which includes a criminal investigation from the U.S. Department of Justice.
That said, Tesla last week had a big win in court over a similar case. A Tesla owner sued the company in 2020, saying that her Model S swerved into a curb while on Autopilot and an airbag deployed so violently as to cause medical damage. A jury in Los Angeles Superior Court ruled the Autopilot feature did not fail.