Apple engineer held for stealing driverless car tech for Chinese startup
11 July 2018
The United States Federal Bureau of Investigation has arrested a former Apple employee for stealing trade secrets of driverless-car technology for passing on to a Chinese start-up.
Xiaolang Zhang, was arrested after he passed through the security checkpoint at San Jose International Airport to board a flight to China.
Zhang, who was formerly working with Apple as an engineer, has been accused of theft of trade secrets, according to a criminal complaint filed with the Northern District Court of California. Prosecutors say he has admitted downloading files containing proprietary information to his wife’s laptop as he prepared to leave the iPhone maker in April and start work for Guangzhou-based Xiaopeng Motors.
Zhang was hired by Apple in December of 2015 to work on Project Titan, developing software and hardware for use in autonomous vehicles. Zhang specifically worked on Apple's Compute Team, designing and testing circuit boards to analyse sensor data.
As a hardware engineer for Apple’s autonomous vehicle development team, Zhang had access to confidential company databases, according to the complaint. He took paternity leave in April and told Apple that he was moving back to China to work at Xmotors.
Apple was already suspicious of his increased network activity and visits to the office before he resigned, according to the complaint.
Zhang admitted to the Federal Bureau of Investigation that he downloaded Apple driverless technology files to his wife’s laptop to have continued access to them, according to the complaint. He was arrested July 7.
The US Treasury Department plans to heighten scrutiny of Chinese investments in sensitive US industries under an emergency law. The crackdown is aimed at China’s investment in new-energy vehicles, robotics and aerospace, all of which the Trump administration sees as a threat to economy and national security.
Apple had approved plans to develop a self-driving electric vehicle to take on Tesla Inc and the Detroit auto industry. Apple had also hired more than 1,000 engineers. However, Apple scaled back plans to build a physical vehicle two years back and has since been working on the self-driving software and sensor technology.
Apple has several cars equipped with its software on the road today, but the reliability of its technology is still unproved.
Apple plans to use its robocar technology on special Volkswagen vans to transport employees between offices. Apple hasn’t said how or if it will eventually release its technology to consumers.
About 5,000 of Apple’s full-time employees are disclosed on the car project. Out of these, roughly 2,700 workers have access to one or more Apple databases containing information about the project, according to Apple’s complaint.