Former Apple engineer at Xpeng Motors could face 10 years in prison after admitting to stealing self-driving secrets
On Monday, local time in the United States, Xiaolang Zhang, a former employee accused by Apple, formally pleaded guilty to federal court in San Jose. The reason is that the employee stole trade secrets from the company's automotive division during his tenure at Apple before moving to China's Xpeng Motors.

It is understood that the court documents of the court show that the plea agreement that Zhang Xiaolang, a former Apple employee, has reached with the U.S. government is confidential, and no details have been disclosed to the outside world. The employee faces up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine in the United States under relevant laws after pleading guilty to felony theft of trade secrets. Sentencing in the case is scheduled for November.

Zhang Xiaolang is charged with downloading internal core documents about Apple's car project. The investigation found that the employee downloaded a 25-page file that included the core engineering schematics of an automotive circuit board. It is also accused of stealing reference manuals and PDF documents about Apple's prototype products and prototype product requirements.

According to the FBI and prosecutor's office indictment documents, Zhang Xiaolang has been working at Apple since 2015 and was then transferred to the automotive team as a hardware engineer, which is one of the reasons why he has access to trade secrets.

Interestingly, Apple did not want to admit that the company was developing a car before, and even the serious leaks behind the Apple Car did not respond at the time. And now the allegations confirm something Apple has rarely publicly acknowledged years later: that the company is indeed working on driverless electric vehicles.

In a 2018 charging document, an FBI agent revealed that Apple had about 5,000 "disclosed" employees who were aware of the project, and that "core employees" who had access to key data such as project data and databases were as high as 2700 people.

The indictment shows that Apple generally uses internal software to track which items are "disclosed" by employees, and requires them to participate in relevant confidential training according to the relevant job position. Zhang Xiaolang's specific work includes the computing team of Apple's driverless car project, responsible for designing and testing circuit boards for sensors, which makes him one of the core members with access to project data and databases. And the automotive industry knows that circuit design schematics are considered the most valuable trade secrets in the electronics industry.

The 2018 indictment shows that after Zhang Xiaolang took paternity leave and traveled to China, Apple began to suspect him of stealing the company’s trade secrets. Especially when he submitted a letter of resignation after returning to the company, expressing his desire to return to China to take care of his mother, Zhang Xiaolang told Apple that he planned to move to Xiaopeng Motors, and his Apple Intranet access rights had been revoked, and at that time the company more worried and suspicious.

According to the indictment, Apple’s subsequent final investigation found that Zhang Xiaolang downloaded files and materials from the company’s database. Apple's surveillance footage even captured Zhang Xiaolang entering a laboratory to remove hardware. It was later discovered that the hardware he removed was some circuit boards and a Linux server.

A lawyer for Zhang Xiaolang was not available for comment. An Apple spokesman also did not respond. Xiaopeng Motors, which seems to be related to the case but has nothing to do with it, was the first to respond: "It has been more than four years since the case, and Xiaopeng Motors has no knowledge of the specific circumstances of the case, nor has it been involved in the follow-up investigation of the case by the US judicial authorities. There is also no related dispute between Apple and no connection to this case."


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