Apple self-driving car engineer admits he stole trade secrets while he was there

Xiaolang Zhang has pled guilty to stealing trade secrets from Apple, where he worked on a self-driving car project from 2015 to 2018 (via CNBC). When he quit his job at Apple, he told his supervisor that he was going to work for Guangzhou Xiaopeng Motors Technology, a Chinese EV startup also known as Xpeng.

During an investigation, which you can read more about here, Apple determined that he had transferred around 24GB of “highly problematic” data to his wife’s laptop via AirDrop, and had also taken circuit boards and a server from the company’s autonomous vehicle lab.

The terms of Zhang’s plea agreement aren’t publicly available, but according to a court document uploaded by CNBC (pdf), Zhang pled guilty to the single theft of trade secrets count listed in his indictment. A conference to determine his sentencing is scheduled for November 14th. According to US law, theft of trade secrets comes with a maximum prison sentence of 10 years, and CNBC reports Zhang could face up to a quarter-million dollar fine.

He’s not the only person who’s been accused of stealing automotive trade secrets from Apple, or of trying to transfer secretive materials to Xpeng. In 2019, another former Apple employee was charged with trying to smuggle manuals, schematics, diagrams, and photographs from Apple’s car project to China. His case is ongoing, according to CNBC.

That same year, Tesla claimed a former employee had uploaded source code relating to its Autopilot system to his iCloud account, and then took that information to Xpeng. At the time, the company told The Verge it “respects any third-party’s intellectual property rights and confidential information.”

Though the cases of trade secret theft date back several years, Apple hasn’t announced a self-driving car yet. Recent rumors say it could be announced in 2025, but it seems that the project has been a difficult one for Apple. Reports have painted a picture of a team that’s had to deal with high turnover for both engineers and leadership, technical problems, as well as a lack of faith in the project from some Apple higher-ups.

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