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 left his job at Apple, he told his supervisor that he was going to work for Guangzhou Xiapeng Motors Technology, a Chinese EV startup also known as Xpeng.
During an investigation, which you can read more about here, Apple determined that it had transferred about 24GB of “highly problematic” data to his wife’s laptop via AirDrop, and circuit boards from the company’s Autonomous Vehicle Laboratory. And got a server too.
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 same theft of trade secrets listed in his indictment. A conference is scheduled to decide his sentence on November 14. Per US law, theft of trade secrets comes with a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison, and CNBC reports that Zhang could face a fine of up to a quarter million dollars.
He isn’t the only person charged with attempting to steal automotive trade secrets from Apple, or transfer confidential material to Xpeng. In 2019, another former Apple employee was charged with attempting to smuggle manuals, schematics, diagrams and photographs from Apple’s Cars project into China. According to CNBC, his case is ongoing.
That same year, Tesla claimed that a former employee uploaded the source code related to its Autopilot system to his iCloud account, and then took that information to Xpeng. At that time the company told ledge It “respects the intellectual property rights and confidential information of any third party.”
Although cases of trade secret thefts date back several years, Apple has yet to announce a self-driving car. Recent rumors say it could be announced in 2025, but the project seems to have been a tough one for Apple. Reports paint a picture of a team that has had to deal with high turnover, technical problems for both engineers and leadership, as well as a lack of trust in the project from some Apple higher-ups.