Former Apple Employee Pleads Guilty to Theft of Autonomous Vehicle Trade Secrets

According to criminal minutes from the Northern District of California, former Apple engineer Xiaolang Zhang pled guilty to one count of theft of trade secrets in a hearing earlier this week. The United States Attorney’s Office has been prosecuting Zhang for taking proprietary information from Apple after he left the company in 2018 to work for Chinese electric and autonomous vehicle start-up Xpeng Motors.

The criminal complaint alleged that Zhang worked as a hardware engineer on Apple’s autonomous vehicle development team since 2015. Although it was generally known that Apple was developing autonomous vehicle technology, the project Zhang was assigned to was “a closely guarded secret that has never been publicly revealed,” the filing said.

Reportedly, Zhang went on paternity leave after the birth of his child, during which time he traveled to China. After he returned, in late April 2018, he told Apple that he would be leaving the company due to his mother’s declining health, also revealing that he would be joining the Chinese autonomous vehicle rival in its Silicon Valley office.

Zhang’s supervisor became suspicious of him because of his “evasive nature” during the meeting and raised alarms. Review of his network activity showed unusually high amounts of user logins in the days before he announced his departure. 

Too, security footage showed that Zhang had been on campus the Saturday night prior and taken keyboards, cables, and a large box from Apple’s autonomous vehicle development lab. Chief among the evidence presented in the prosecution’s indictment was a 25-page document containing “detailed schematic drawings” of an autonomous vehicle circuit board.

Apple apprised the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) of the possible theft of trade secrets following its own investigation. The organization interviewed Zhang and subsequently arrested him when he tried to board a flight to China on July 7, 2018. 

Following his guilty plea on Monday, the court scheduled a status conference regarding sentencing for mid-November. According to an article by TechCrunch’s Rita Liao, Xpeng has “distanced itself from the case,” claiming in a Chinese-language blog post to have nothing to do with the criminal prosecution.

The federal government is represented by the United States Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of California and Zhang by Nolan Barton & Olmos LLP.