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Former Apple employee pleads guilty to stealing trade secrets

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A former Apple engineer just pleaded guilty to stealing computer files containing trade secrets about Apple’s secretive automotive division.

Indeed, U.S. federal prosecutors alleged that Xiaolang Zhang downloaded the blueprint of a circuit board for Apple’s autonomous driving system after revealing his intentions to work for a Chinese autonomous car startup and booking a last-minute flight to China.

He was arrested at the San Jose airport after passing through a security checkpoint.

Xpeng, the Chinese electric car maker that Zhang joined after leaving Apple in 2018, said Tuesday on its Weibo account, (a social network similar to Twitter), that the company had no dispute with Apple over the matter and was not involved in Zhang’s case in any form.

Zhang initially pleaded not guilty to the charges, but according to court documents on Monday, he struck a deal with prosecutors and changed his plea to guilty. He faces up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. 

Another former Xpeng employee has also been embroiled in legal disputes with an American tech giant. In 2019, Tesla claimed that its ex-employee Cao Guangzhi stole Autopilot’s proprietary technology before taking a job at Xpeng. Elon Musk has made public references to his Chinese challenger. The lawsuits were dropped in 2021.

Although the trade secret theft cases go back several years, Apple has yet to announce a self-driving car. The tech giant remains as secretive as ever about its autonomous vehicle development progress. Last year, Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman reported that Apple was aiming to launch its autonomous electric vehicle in 2025. 


By Mélissa Walehiane

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