Xiaolang Zhang, a former Apple employee charged by the FBI in 2018 for stealing trade secrets about Apple’s autonomous vehicle project, pleaded guilty in a federal court in San Jose on Monday.
Zhang stole the trade secrets while preparing to work for Chinese electric vehicle startup Xiaopeng Motors, also known as XPeng. The FBI arrested Zhang at San Jose airport, California, on 7 July, while he was en route to China.
Zhang was hired by Apple in 2015 where he would eventually work on hardware for Apple’s secretive autonomous vehicle project.
According to CNBC, Apple suspected Zhang of stealing trade secrets after he took paternity leave and traveled to China with his family. Upon his return to the US in April 2018, he met with his supervisor to hand in his resignation and explained he wanted to move to China to care for his mother.
After Zhang told Apple he planned to work for Xmotors, the iPhone-maker cut off his network access. A subsequent investigation by Apple found he’d downloaded documents and information from Apple databases.
Besides downloading trade secret intellectual property, he also took a circuit board and server from Apple’s car labs.
But the key documents, which formed the basis of the charge he pleaded guilty to, was a 25-page PDF file containing highly sensitive electrical schematics of circuit boards.
Zhang now faces up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine for the charge of theft of trade secrets.
Zhang designed and tested circuit boards for sensors within the autonomous car project’s Compute Team, according to CNBC.
XMotors told the BBC at the time it did not receive any “sensitive information” from the engineer.
Despite long-running rumors that Apple is working on an autonomous vehicle, the company has never publicly acknowledged the project.
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