Xiaolang Zhang pleaded 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 he was going to work for Guangzhou Xiaopeng Motors Technology, a Chinese electric vehicle startup also known as Xpeng.
During an investigation, which you can read more about here, Apple determined that it transferred approximately 24GB of “highly problematic” data to his wife’s laptop via AirDrop, and also took circuits printed matter and a server from the company’s autonomous vehicle lab.
The terms of Zhang’s plea agreement are not publicly available, but according to a court document uploaded by CNBC (pdf), Zhang pleaded guilty to the single count of trade secret theft listed in his indictment. A sentencing conference is scheduled for November 14. Under US law, stealing trade secrets is punishable by up to 10 years in prison, and CNBC reports that Zhang could face a fine of up to a quarter of a million dollars.
He is not the only person accused of stealing automotive trade secrets from Apple or attempting to transfer secret documents to Xpeng. In 2019, another former Apple employee was accused of trying to smuggle manuals, schematics, diagrams and photographs of Apple’s automotive project into China. His case is ongoing, according to CNBC.
That same year, Tesla claimed that a former employee uploaded source code for its Autopilot system to his iCloud account and then forwarded that information to Xpeng. At the time, the company said The edge it “respects the intellectual property rights and confidential information of third parties”.
Although cases of trade secret theft date back several years, Apple has yet to announce a self-driving car. Recent rumors say that it could be announced in 2025, but it seems that the project has been difficult for Apple. Reports painted a picture of a team that had to contend with high engineer and executive turnover, technical issues, as well as a lack of confidence in the project from some Apple superiors. .