Former Apple engineer pleads guilty to stealing self-driving vehicle secrets, faces decade in prison

You might remember the name Xiaolang Zhang from a few years ago. He’s the former Apple engineer charged with stealing trade secrets during his time at the company’s self-driving car division between 2015 and 2018. After originally denying the claims, Zhang has now pleaded guilty to the charges and faces ten years in prison for his crimes.

Back in 2018, Federal agents stopped Zhang at San Jose International Airport as he departed for Beijing using a ticket bought at the “last second.” He was accused of transferring 24GB of Apple’s data onto his wife’s laptop via AirDrop. The files included a 25-page document containing engineering schematics of a circuit board, along with technical manuals and PDFs relating to the company’s self-driving vehicle prototype.

Zhang was also caught on camera removing hardware from Apple’s autonomous vehicle development lab. It was later identified as circuit boards and a Linux server.

Zhang had told his Apple bosses in 2018 that he was leaving the firm and moving to China to work for Chinese EV startup Guangzhou Xiaopeng Motors Technology, aka Xpeng. He revealed his plans after returning from paternity leave, during which time he traveled to China.

CNBC writes that Zhang has now pleaded guilty to the single theft of trade secrets count in San Jose federal court. The felony charge carries a maximum of up to ten years in prison and a $250,000 fine. His sentencing is due to take place in November.

This isn’t the only case of an Apple employee stealing trade secrets related to its autonomous car project. Jizhong Chen was accused of the same crime in 2019. He was also planning to travel to China and is represented by the same lawyer used by Zhang. A date for that trial has not been set.

Apple’s self-driving car ambitions have been around since 2014 when Tim Cook reportedly approved project Titan. At one point, it appeared as if Apple had given up on the car project and was instead focusing solely on developing autonomous vehicle software for other automakers, but a report from last year claims Apple’s EV could arrive as soon as 2025.