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Tesla and Apple Find a Common Enemy

A former Tesla employee has been accused of stealing Tesla source code for a Chinese competitor, the same startup which recently had a run-in with Apple for a similar theft.  Now it looks like Tesla and Apple may be teaming up in a lawsuit regarding this high-profile corporate espionage.

Corporate Poaching

Back in late 2018, engineer Guangzhi Cao was working for Tesla, one of only 40 employees with access to the Autopilot source code.  Around this time he began uploading complete copies of that same source code to his personal iCloud account.  After copying more than 300,000 files and directories, he abruptly announced that he was quitting, deleted 120,000 files from his work computer, disconnected his personal iCloud account, and cleared his browser history before leaving. 

Come January, Cao was working for Chinese startup Xpeng (also known as Xiaopeng Motors).  According to the lawsuit, “…Tesla believes Cao and his new employer, [Xpeng], will continue to have unfettered access to Tesla’s marquee technology, the product of more than five years’ work and over hundreds of millions of dollars of investment, which they have no legal right to possess.”

Denying All Wrongdoing

According to a response from Cao’s lawyers filed on July 8th, Cao “has done precisely nothing with Tesla’s IP.  Prior to his departure from Tesla, Cao diligently and earnestly attempted to remove any and all Tesla intellectual property and source code from his own personal devices.”  They also claim that Cao volunteered to provide Tesla with complete forensic copies of any of his electronic devices that Tesla wished to examine. 

Furthermore, Cao claims the sensitive intellectual property in his possession had absolutely no impact on the job offer he received from Xpeng only a few weeks later.

Tesla Brings Apple Into Lawsuit

The joint filing that was filed this week from both Tesla and Cao showed that Tesla has subpoenaed documents from Apple.  While the two companies are rivals in the electric car business (Apple’s secretive self-driving research is undoubtedly meant to someday compete with Tesla), they share a common problem: an employee from Apple’s autonomous car project found himself charged with stealing trade secrets last July by the FBI. 

That employee also added sensitive data to a cloud service on his wife’s laptop and was recorded walking off of Apple’s campus with a box of equipment.  He too had recently been poached from Apple by Xpeng. 

According to his LinkedIn profile, Cao had been a senior image scientist at Apple for two years before joining Tesla’s ranks.  

Xpeng’s Response

It is no secret that the U.S. and China have recently been locked in a trade war, and accusations of corporate espionage by Chinese companies have run rampant.  

While neither Apple or Tesla has accused Xpeng of any wrongdoing, Xpeng has commented that it had absolutely nothing to do with Cao’s alleged misconduct.  According to Xpeng, as soon as it was notified that authorities in the U.S. were investigating Cao, he was denied access to his work and all of his equipment was secured, before firing him soon after. 

In the past, Xpeng built a vehicle heavily inspired by Tesla, using their patents and even ripping off the Autopilot user interface displayed on the instrument panel.  The similarities were so stark that some took to calling the car a “Tesla clone.”

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