Elon Musk must give deposition in fatal Tesla Autopilot

(Bloomberg) — A California judge presiding over a wrongful death lawsuit against Tesla Inc. found it “deeply disturbing” that the electric car maker claims videos of Elon Musk promoting Autopilot may actually be fake.

Faced with Tesla’s refusal to rule out that some of the clips could be digitally altered and therefore inappropriate as evidence, the judge came up with an elegant solution: swear in on the billionaire entrepreneur and AI enthusiast and force him to testify as to what claims he made. mouth, are genuine.

Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Evett Pennypacker’s ruling Thursday marks a watershed in the growing controversy over Tesla’s driver-assistance technology.

Tesla and Musk are under legal pressure from consumers, investors, securities regulators and federal prosecutors who are wondering if the company has been exaggerating its self-driving car progress over the past eight years. Tesla is also in the thick of numerous National Highway Traffic Safety Administration investigations into possible defects in the autopilot, linked to at least 17 deaths.

Musk’s three-hour testimony ordered by a judge – albeit very limited in scope – will make him come into his own for the first time as he vouches for public statements he’s made since 2014 promoting Tesla technology in media interviews, blog posts and tweets. Musk could also be asked to authenticate a 2016 video that exaggerated the capabilities of Autopilot — in which he dictated an introductory text that claimed the company’s car was driving itself.

Elon Musk made a video with the Tesla Autopilot, which says that the car behaved itself

The stakes couldn’t be higher.

Just this month, in a conference call with investors, Musk made it clear that he was willing to stake the company’s profits towards achieving its goal of fully autonomous cars.

An electric car manufacturer successfully challenged an attempt to force Musk to testify in an autopilot suit in Florida. But Pennypacker concluded at Thursday’s hearing that there is no other way forward in the case brought by the family of the 2017 Tesla Model X driver who died in a 2018 road accident into a concrete barrier about 45 minutes south of San Francisco.

In a preliminary ruling issued Wednesday, the judge slammed Tesla’s argument that it can’t confirm the authenticity of some of the video clips the family is trying to use as evidence.

“Their position is that since Mr. Musk is known and may be more of a target for deepfakes, his public statements are not protected,” the judge wrote. “In other words, Mr. Musk and others in his position can simply say whatever they please in the public domain, and then hide that their recorded statements may be fake in order not to take responsibility for what they actually said and do.”

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How Deepfakes Are Making Disinformation More Real Than Ever: QuickTake

While judges often exempt CEOs and other high-ranking officials from having to testify, Pennypacker rejected Tesla’s offer to allow Musk to ask questions in writing, noting that lawyers in the case are already deadlocked with that approach.

But the judge excused Musk for not having to travel to testify, saying he could practically do so from his home in Texas, and said he could only be asked to confirm that he was indeed in the video – and couldn’t. be interrogated on the merits of his testimony.

“It’s not free for everyone to ask about everything,” Pennypacker told lawyers.

“The unanswered questions are: ‘Are you and Gayle King?’ “Or are you, you know, the TED Talk?” Pennypacker added, referring to a 2017 interview. “That’s something that hasn’t been answered.”

Tesla’s lawyer, Tom Branigan, told the judge that the company didn’t mean the videos were fakes, but “we brought up this idea, this question, because today we live in a world where these things exist.”

The lawsuit, filed by the family of Walter Huang, who was an Apple Inc. engineer, is scheduled for July 31st. The family allege that the autopilot system failed while Huang was driving on the morning commute to work and steered his car into the median.

Tesla sued for fatal autopilot crash

Huang’s hands were not found on the steering wheel several times in the 19 minutes leading up to the crash, during which the autopilot issued two visual and one audible warnings about hands-free driving, Tesla said. Huang was playing the Three Kingdoms video game on his phone at the time of the accident, according to an investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board.

Lawyer Doris Cheng, who represents the Huang family, told the judge that arguing with Tesla over Musk’s claims so far “has been very exhausting.”

Lawyers for Huangs argued that Tesla failed to adequately respond to their demands for information during the pre-trial disclosure process and asked the judge to impose sanctions on the company.

But Pennypacker turned down the request.

“It is clear to the court that Tesla has made efforts to respond to Plaintiffs’ requests for disclosure,” she wrote. “In some cases, plaintiffs simply don’t like the answers they receive.”

Huang v. Tesla Inc., 19CV346663, California Supreme Court, Santa Clara County (San Jose).

(Updates with judge’s decision during hearing.)
–With assistance from Dana Hull and Robert Burnson.

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