Xiaolang Zhang has 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 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 about 24 GB of “highly problematic” data to his wife’s laptop via AirDrop, and also took circuit boards and a server from the company’s autonomous vehicle lab. .
The terms of Zhang’s plea deal are not publicly available, but according to a court document uploaded by CNBC (pdf), Zhang pleaded guilty to the mere theft of trade secrets mentioned in his charge. A conference to determine his sentencing is scheduled for November 14. Under US law, trade secret theft carries a maximum jail term of 10 years, and CNBC reports that Zhang could face a fine of up to a quarter of a million dollars.
He’s not the only person accused of stealing trade secrets from Apple cars, or trying to transfer classified materials to Xpeng. In 2019, another former Apple employee was accused of trying to smuggle manuals, schematics, diagrams and photos of Apple’s car project into China. His case is still pending, CNBC reports.
That same year, Tesla claimed that a former employee uploaded the source code related to his Autopilot system to his iCloud account and then took that information to Xpeng. At the time, the company told The edge it “respects the intellectual property rights and confidential information of third parties.”
Although cases of trade secret theft go back several years, Apple has not yet announced a self-driving car. Recent rumors say it could be announced in 2025, but it seems the project has been a difficult one for Apple. Reports have painted a picture of a team dealing with high turnover for both engineers and leadership, technical difficulties, as well as a lack of faith in the project from some senior Apple people.