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Elon Musk will likely face deposition in lawsuit over deadly Tesla Autopilot crash

Musk allegedly oversold Autopilot's safety.

REUTERS/Stringer

Elon Musk may have to answer detailed questions regarding a fatal 2018 Tesla crash where Autopilot was involved. Judge Evette Pennypacker has ordered Musk to give a three-hour deposition in a lawsuit over the crash, which killed Apple engineer Walter Huang when his Model X plowed into a highway median south of San Francisco. Attorneys for Huang's family want to grill the tech CEO over statements he made about Autopilot's capabilities in the years before the incident.

Most notably, the plaintiffs point to a 2016 Code Conference interview (shown below) where Musk maintained that Tesla cars with Autopilot could already drive with "greater safety than a person." They're also concerned about a 2016 self-driving demo video that engineers testified was staged to show features that weren't ready. The implication, of course, is that Huang was falsely led to believe he could trust his Model X to drive down the highway without being ready to take over.

Tesla says Autopilot was engaged at the time of the crash, but also maintains that Huang ignored three car warnings to put his hands back on the steering wheel. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) says Huang was playing a phone game at the time. Tesla tried to resist the deposition by claiming Musk couldn't remember the associated statements, and that his popularity could prompt the creation of AI-based deepfake videos. Pennypacker rejected this argument as a "deeply troubling" tactic that could effectively shield any well-known person from responsibility for their statements.

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The order is officially tentative, and a hearing is slated for today (April 27th) to make a final decision. However, Reuters notes California judges usually finalize these rulings with few changes. The lawsuit is slated to reach trial on July 31st.

Tesla has faced mounting criticism over its Autopilot safety claims, including concerns that over-reliance on the system has led to crashes. Politicians have called for the automaker to improve safety and use more accurate naming. However, the company has also had a few victories as of late. The NTSB in February ruled out Autopilot as a factor in a deadly 2021 crash in Texas. Just days ago, Tesla thwarted a lawsuit from a Los Angeles driver who faulted Autopilot for swerving her Model S into a median. There will be lingering concerns, then, whether or not Tesla survives the Huang lawsuit.