An XPeng engineer just pleaded guilty to stealing trade secrets from the Apple Project Titan self-driving car program!
Here is what we know so far…
XPeng Engineer Guilty Of Stealing Apple Car Secrets!
A former Apple engineer who joined Xpeng – the Chinese electric vehicle maker, just pleaded guilty to the criminal charge of stealing trade secrets from the Apple self-driving car program!
Zhang Xiaolang initially pleaded not guilty to the charges, but he reached a plea deal with prosecutors and changed his plea to guilty, according to court documents released on Monday, August 22, 2022.
The plea deal is sealed, so the details are unknown. Zhang’s attorney, Daniel Olmos, confirmed the plea agreement but declined to comment on the details. Sentencing however is set for November 2022.
Zhang faces a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison, and a $250,000 fine. With this plea deal, he should serve a much shorter sentence.
In addition to Zhang, US federal prosecutors also charged Chen Jizhong with stealing secrets from the Apple self-driving car program. Chen, however, continues to plead not guilty, and will have his day in court on August 29, 2022.
Chen is also represented by the same lawyer as Zhang – Daniel Olmos.
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How XPeng Engineer Stole Apple Car Secrets!
Zhang Xiaolang worked on the Apple Project Titan autonomous vehicle program as a hardware engineer between 2015 and 2018, during which he designed and tested circuit boards.
He travelled to China during his paternity leave in 2018, and on returning in April 2018, he told his boss at Apple that he was leaving to work for XPeng (Guangzhou Xiaopeng Motors Technology) in China.
XPeng, also known as XMotors in the United States, is a Chinese electric car startup backed by Alibaba, Foxconn and IDG Capital. It has developed electric cars like the XPeng G3 and XPeng P5.
His boss felt that Zhang was “being evasive” during the meeting. There was also increased network activity and visits to his office, before he resigned. All that led to an internal Apple investigation of his two company-issued phones and laptop.
That’s when they discovered that Zhang had been downloading confidential files from the Apple lab during his time away. He was also caught on CCTV removing circuit boards and a Linux server from their lab.
Zhang’s network activity was found to consist of “both bulk searches and targeted downloading copious pages of information from the various confidential database applications“.
Zhang was arrested at the San Jose airport in July 7, 2018, before he could board a last-minute, one-way flight to China aboard Hainan Airlines.
In an interview with Apple’s security team, Zhang admitted that he downloaded the data online, and removed hardware from its labs. He also admitted to the FBI that he stored the files he downloaded on his wife’s laptop.
The FBI described the data he stoled as “largely technical in nature, including engineering schematics, technical reference manuals, and technical reports“.
The files – about 24 GB worth – include a 25-page document containing engineering schematics of a circuit board, as well as technical manuals and PDFs related to the Apple self-driving car prototype.
The other Apple engineer to be charged with stealing secrets of its autonomous car project – Chen Jizhong – was accused of stealing stolen thousands of sensitive documents, as well as 100 photos taken inside its self-driving facility – all discovered in a hard disk drive he owned.
Chen was also arrested when he attempted to board a flight to China, ostensibly to visit his ill father.
XPeng Denies Involvement In Theft Of Apple Car Secrets!
XPeng said in a Weibo post that it was aware of the plea agreement from media reports, but it was “not clear about the details, nor involved in further investigation conducted by US law enforcement“.
It has been more than four years into the case, and we are not aware of the specifics of the case and have not been involved in the follow-up investigation of the case by the US judiciary.
We also have no relevant dispute with Apple and have no connection with the case. We strictly abide by relevant laws and attaches great importance to intellectual property protection.
Zhang joined XMotors in May 2018, but the company quickly distanced itself from its employee, stating on July 11, 2021 :
There is no indication that he has ever communicated any sensitive information from Apple to XMotors.
XMotors always has strictly abided by the laws of China and the United States and takes protection of intellectual property rights seriously.
Company spokesperson Isabel Jiang also stated that once they were notified in late June 2018 that US authorities were investigating Zhang, they secured his computer and office equipment and denied him access to his work. They subsequently fired him.
XPeng also said that Zhang signed an intellectual property compliance document on the day he joined, and that there was “no record that he reported any sensitive and illegal situations” to the company.
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