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AV Espionage: Former Apple AV engineer pleads guilty to trade secret theft in U.S. federal court

San Jose, California — Some high-tech nefariousness seems to be at play with the development of Apple’s mysterious autonomous vehicle, as a former engineer for the tech giant pleaded guilty to trade secret theft in U.S. federal court on Monday.

Zhang Xiaolang was heading to the airport to catch a one-way flight to China in July 2018 when he was arrested under the charge of having downloaded a 25-page document to his wife’s laptop that included schematic drawings of a circuit board design for a portion of an autonomous vehicle.

Zhang admitted to the accusation during a hearing on Monday in San Jose, Calif. Trade secret theft carries a maximum penalty of ten years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

The former Apple engineer, who was hired on as a hardware engineer in the company’s autonomous vehicle division in 2015, was reportedly on his way to China to work with a startup also operating in the electric and autonomous vehicles sector.

Zhang announced his resignation from Apple in April of 2018, citing his mother’s declining health as his motivation to return to China, and subsequently took a job at Xpeng Inc.

Xpeng has since stated that they are aware of the case against Zhang, but are “not clear about the details, nor involved in further investigation conducted by US law enforcement.”

“We have no controversy against Apple and have no correlation with this case. Xpeng strictly abides by the related laws and highly values the protection of intellectual property,” reads a portion of the company’s statement.

A strangely similar case unfolded in January of 2019, when another engineer named Jizhong Chen was caught with photos and sensitive documents relating to Apple’s autonomous vehicle development. He also told the company he needed to return to China to care for a sick parent, his father, and was also on the way to the airport when he was arrested, though he pleaded not guilty.

Both Zhang and Chen’s cases were filed in the Northern District of California, under the case names US v. Zhang, 18-cr-00312 and US v. Chen, 19-cr-00056, respectively.

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