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 going to board a last-minute flight to China. Zhang was accused of transferring a 25-page document that includes the engineering schematics of a circuit board for the company’s self-driving vehicle, along with technical manuals describing Apple’s prototype, to his wife’s laptop. 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 felony charge of theft of trade secrets in San Jose federal court, according to CNBC.

The news organization has obtained a court document (PDF) summarizing the proceedings in which Zhang changed his plea — he originally pleaded not guilty when he was indicted in 2018. In it, the court has noted that his plea agreement is under seal and that his sentencing is scheduled on November 14th. Zhang faces up to ten years in prison and could pay up to $250,000 in fine.

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, circuit designs are typically considered some of the most valuable trade secrets in electronics. Apple reportedly first suspected Zhang of stealing from the company when he turned in his resignation following a paternity leave and a trip to China. He told the company that he was resigning so he could move back to China and take care of his mother.

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Zhang also told Apple that he was planning to work with XPeng Motors, an electric vehicle manufacturer that’s also developing its own autonomous driving technology. His access to Apple’s resources was cut off after he resigned, and an investigation followed soon after. It was through that investigation that Apple discovered that he transferred gigabytes’ worth of top secret files via AirDrop and saw him physically taking hardware from the company’s labs via CCTV footage.

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