Former Apple engineer pleads guilty to stealing self-driving car secrets, faces ten years in prison

Summary: You may remember the name Xiaolang Zhang from a few years ago. He is a former Apple engineer who is accused of stealing trade secrets during his time at the company’s self-driving car division between 2015 and 2018. Initially denying the charges, Zhang has now pleaded guilty to the charges and faces ten years in prison for his crimes.

Back in 2018, federal agents stopped Zhang at San Jose International Airport as he flew to Beijing on a “last second” ticket. He was accused of transferring 24 GB of Apple data to his wife’s laptop via AirDrop. The files included a 25-page document containing PCB engineering schematics, as well as technical manuals and PDFs related to the company’s self-driving car prototype.

Zhang was also filmed removing hardware from Apple’s Autonomous Vehicle Development Lab. This was later identified as circuit boards and a Linux server.

Zhang told his Apple bosses in 2018 that he was leaving the firm and moving to China to work at Chinese electric vehicle startup Guangzhou Xiaopeng Motors Technology, also known as Xpeng. He revealed his plans after returning from a parental leave during which he traveled to China.

CNBC writes that Zhang has now pleaded guilty to the sole theft of trade secrets of the count in San Jose federal court. A felony conviction carries up to ten years in prison and a $250,000 fine. His sentencing is due in November.

This is not the only time that Apple employees have stolen trade secrets related to its autonomous car project. Jizhong Chen was charged with the same crime in 2019. He also planned to travel to China and is represented by the same lawyer Zhang used. A date for this trial has not been set.

Apple’s self-driving car ambitions have been around since 2014, when Tim Cook reportedly approved the Titan project. At one point, it seemed like Apple had abandoned the car project and instead focused solely on developing autonomous vehicle software for other automakers, but last year’s report claimed that Apple’s electric car could arrive as early as 2025.

Image courtesy Vanarama

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