Former Apple employee pleads guilty to stealing self-driving car secrets

Back in 2018, former Apple employee Xiaolang Zhang was arrested at San Jose International Airport, where he was about to board a last-minute flight to China. Zhang was accused of transferring to his wife’s laptop a 25-page document containing the technical schematics of a printed circuit board for the company’s self-driving vehicle and technical manuals describing Apple’s prototype. He was also accused of stealing circuit boards and a Linux server from the company’s development labs. Now, Zhang has pleaded guilty to a charge of stealing trade secrets in federal court in San Jose CNBC.

The news organization has obtained a court document (PDF) summarizing the trial in which Zhang changed his plea – he originally pleaded not guilty when charged in 2018. The sentencing is scheduled for November 14. Zhang faces up to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000.

Before his arrest, Zhang worked as a hardware engineer in Apple’s autonomous vehicle division and was part of the team that designs and tests circuit boards for sensors. As CNBC notes that circuit designs are typically considered one of the most valuable trade secrets in electronics. Apple reportedly first suspected Zhang of stealing from the company when he handed in his resignation after taking paternity leave and a trip to China. He told the company that he was quitting so he could move back to China and take care of his mother.

Zhang also told Apple that he plans to work with XPeng Motors, an electric vehicle maker that is also developing its own autonomous driving technology. His access to Apple’s resources was suspended after his termination, and an investigation followed shortly thereafter. Through this investigation, Apple discovered that it had AirDroped gigabytes’ worth of top-secret files and saw it physically withdrawing hardware from the company’s labs via CCTV footage.

Meanwhile, the tech giant remains as secretive as ever about its advances in autonomous vehicle development. Last year, Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman reported that Apple has decided to focus on developing full self-driving capabilities and that the company is aiming to launch its autonomous electric vehicle in 2025.

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