A California judge has questioned Tesla's defense that Elon Musk's statements about the safety of the company's Autopilot driver assistance system could be deepfakes.
The judge, Evette Pennypacker, made the ruling in a tentative order in a lawsuit brought by the family of Walter Huang, who was killed in a 2018 crash while using Autopilot.
Tesla has argued that Huang was playing a video game on his phone at the time of the crash, and that he ignored multiple warnings from the car. However, Huang's family has pointed to Musk's statements about Autopilot, including a 2016 tweet in which he said that Tesla cars "can drive themselves with greater safety than a human."
Tesla's lawyers have argued that Musk cannot recall making the statements, and that they could be deepfakes. However, Judge Pennypacker said that Tesla's argument is "deeply troubling."
"Their position is that because Mr. Musk is famous and might be more of a target for deepfakes, his public statements are immune," Judge Pennypacker wrote. "This is a dangerous proposition."
Judge Pennypacker tentatively ordered a limited, three-hour deposition, where Musk could be asked whether he actually made the statements on the recording.
The ruling is a victory for Huang's family, who have been fighting for years to hold Tesla accountable for Huang's death. It is also a setback for Tesla, which has been trying to deflect blame for the crash.
The case is still ongoing, and it is not clear whether Judge Pennypacker's tentative order will be finalized. However, the ruling is a sign that the judge is taking the case seriously, and that she is not willing to let Tesla get away with its excuses.
A deepfake usually involves an image or video in which a person or object is visually or audibly manipulated to say and do something that is fabricated.
They have been used to create fake videos of Barack Obama calling Donald Trump a "complete dips**t" and Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg bragging about having "complete control" of people's data.
Deepfakes have also been used to create fake pornographic images of celebrities.
And there are concerns that they could be used to create mass panic or influence elections by creating fake videos of politicians.
Some countries are even attempting to crackdown on deepfakes. In England and Wales, proposals have been put forward to make the creation of pornographic deepfakes without consent a criminal offence.
The images are made using AI technology - though experts are also attempting to use AI to tackle deepfakes by making technology that can more easily pick-out fact from fiction.
California judges often issue tentative rulings, which are almost always finalised with few major changes after such a hearing.
The lawsuit is scheduled to go into trial on 31 July.
It comes after a California state court jury on Friday found Tesla's Autopilot feature did not fail in what appeared to be the first trial related to a crash involving the partially automated driving software.