In 2018, important computer files containing the Apple car secrets were stolen by a former employee named Xiaolang Zhang. Hence, he was charged and brought to trial. Although a verdict is pending, the accused pleaded guilty in the federal court in San Jose yesterday.
Zhang was accused of transferring a 25-page document containing the engineering schematics of a circuit board for the company’s self-driving car to his wife’s laptop. He also stole technical manuals describing Apple’s prototype of the vehicle. In addition, he was charged with stealing circuit boards from the company’s dev labs.
Apple Car: Apple’s Open Secret
According to FBI and U.S. attorney’s office charging documents, Zhang had worked for Apple since 2015, most recently as a hardware engineer on Apple’s autonomous vehicle team. And as per CNBC, he has now pleaded guilty in federal court in San Jose to a felony charge of theft of trade secrets.
The news outlet obtained a court document (PDF) summarising the proceedings in which Zhang changed his plea — he initially pleaded not guilty when indicted in 2018. In the 2018 charging documents, an FBI agent stated that the company had approximately 5,000 “disclosed” employees, meaning they were aware of the project, and 2,700 “core employees” with access to project materials and databases.
While Apple has been tight-lipped about its car, it is no secret that the project has been in the making for quite some time. The company has made several car-related acquisitions and even hired Ford veterans and a Lamborghini veteran to design the Apple Car. Zhang’s theft of the schematics could’ve jeopardized years of Apple’s work.
His plea agreement is under seal, and his sentencing is set for November 14. Zhang could face up to ten years in prison and a $250,000 fine. When Zhang resigned after paternity leave and was leaving for China, Apple reportedly suspected him of stealing from the company and caught him.