A former employee of IPhone maker Apple Inc. (AAPL), Xiaolang Zhang, has pleaded guilty to stealing company trade secrets when he was working on a self-driving car project from the year 2015 to 2018. Zhang pleaded guilty to all the charges at a federal court in San Jose on Monday.
According to court filings, Zhang’s plea deal with the American government is under seal. The former Apple employee can be sentenced to maximum 10 years in prison and be charged a $250,000 fine. The court has set aside the sentencing for November.
When Zhang left his job in Apple, he informed his seniors that he was going to take a job with Guangzhou Xiaopeng Motors Technology, a Chinese Electric Vehicle start-up, also known as XPeng. At Apple, Zhang was employed on the autonomous car project’s Compute Team, which designed and tested circuit boards for sensors.
Zhang first came under the cloud of suspicion when he travelled to China for paternity leave. After coming back, he expressed his intention to move back to China for a longer period of time.
Apple made use of its internal software technology to find out that Zhang had downloaded information from the company’s databases and he was planning to sell the trade secrets about Apple’s car division to Chinese patrons.
The federal court found Zhang guilty of downloading internal Apple files about its car project, and more importantly, a 25-page document about engineering schematics of a circuit board for an autonomous vehicle. He had also misused reference manuals and PDFs mentioning in detail about Apple’s prototypes and prototype requirements.
Schematics for circuit designs are considered among the most valuable trade secrets in the electronics industry.
Zhang was picked up from the San Jose airport on July 2018, when he was boarding a flight to China. The charges against Zhang again highlight the secret project of Apple, its electric vehicle manufacturing section, which has been completely kept off the public eye.
In the earlier mentioned documents, an FBI agent said that Apple had about 5,000 “disclosed” employees, who knew about the project and 2,700 “core employees” with access to project materials and databases.
Till date, Apple has not made any mentioned of a self-driving car and looking ahead, the project seems to be a difficult one for the company. This is because of the contrast between engineers who have to work with high turnover pressure and a lack of support for the project from Apple’s higher officials.
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