Earlier this year, Tesla accused one of its former engineers, Guangzhi Cao, of stealing trade secrets pertaining to the Autopilot system and then subsequently giving them to Chinese Alibaba-backed electric vehicle startup, Xiaopeng Motors, also known as XPeng.
The Chinese startup launched an all-electric SUV back in 2018 which was widely regarded as a Tesla clone when it was revealed. Some parts of it have even been allegedly built using the Tesla open-source patents. And not only did the company make use of these patents but also pulled apart Tesla cars,like the Model S, in order to further develop its own vehicles.
When the Xpeng G3 model came out, it was easy to see the resemblance – from the slim LED headlights to the wide central control monitor, it all was too close to the Tesla design for comfort.
There were only 40 people within Tesla who had direct access to the source code for Autopilot and Cao was one of them. Tesla accused him of moving over 300,000 files related to the Autopilot code over to his personal iCloud sometime in late 2018.
Cao announced quite suddenly that he will be leaving the company on January 3rd and Tesla soon found out that he took up a job with XPeng.
Following the announcement, according to Tesla, Cao disconnected his personal iCloud account, deleted 120,000 files from his work computer and, during his last day with the company, logged into the Tesla secure networks and cleared his browser history.
Cao, of course, denied the allegations brought forth against him but, in a more recent court filing, he admits that “during his employment at Tesla, he uploaded Tesla files to his personal iCloud account and that he created zip files of Tesla’s Autopilot-related source code“.
Cao also states that he terminated his iCloud account from the computer Tesla issued to him “on or around December 26” but that he kept logging into the Tesla networks between December 27th and January 1st.
The engineer “further admits that he deleted certain files stored on his Tesla computer and cleared his web browser history prior to his separation from employment with Tesla but denies that any of this activity constitutes any kind of ‘misconduct,’” the court filing goes on to say and insists that Cao “made extensive efforts to delete and/or remove any such Tesla files” from both his computer and iCloud account before leaving the company.
Cao’s lawyers however, argue in the filing that he has not used the Autopilot code in any way since or transferred it, or any other information for that matter, to XPeng and that the lawsuit is “about routine employee offboarding issues that could and should have been resolved by Tesla either through its own human resources or information technology policies.”