Apple Car engineer pleads guilty of stealing self-driving schematics before joining XPeng
A former engineer at Apple's Project Titan team charged with developing the Apple Car - Zhang Xiaolang - has pled guilty of trying to smuggle intellectual property from Apple before joining XPeng Motors, a Chinese electric car startup. Zhang downloaded 25 pages of circuit board schematics related to developing the Apple Car's autonomous driving system, as well as reference manuals and PDFs featuring initial development prototypes.
He started working at Project Tian in 2015 as a hardware engineer, but subsequently took an employment offer from XPeng's office in Silicon Valley and, after going to China on a paternity leave in April 2018, Apple started to suspect that he had been stealing intellectual property. These suspicions weren't helped by the fact that immediately upon his return Zhang filed a resignation letter with the argument that he will return to China to care for his elderly parents.
Apple's security chief said he found Zhang Xiaolang had conducted extensive data searches in classified databases and downloaded a large amount of classified material. In addition, Zhang Xiaolang came to Apple Park during his vacation and took away items including circuit boards and servers from the company. He also allegedly downloaded infographics about the self-driving car's circuit boards to a personal computer.
Apple alerted the FBI and Zhang was caught at the San Jose airport before boarding his last-minute flight. XPeng confirmed that he did sign non-disclosure agreements with them and they complied with the FBI's investigation by sealing his office and computer as soon as they were alerted about the possible wrongdoing.
Now that Zhang Xiaolang has pled guilty of stealing Apple Car trade secrets, XPeng might face scrutiny about the matter during its imminent quarterly results conference call with investors. It said at the time that it's been unaware of Zhang's travails and there is no record of him promising trade secrets in exchange for employment during the hiring process.
As a reminder, despite that Apple might have dissolved its car team Project Titan, the vehicle's development may still be ongoing and the latest rumors peg it at having parts made of titanium and costing north of US$100,000 with an eventual release set for 2025 or a later date.