Xiaolang Zhang, a former employee of Apple [NASDAQ: AAPL], was detained in 2018 as he attempted to catch a last-minute aircraft to China at San Jose International Airport. Zhang was charged with sending a 25-page document including technical documents outlining Apple’s prototype as well as engineering blueprints for a circuit board for the company’s self-driving car to his wife’s laptop. He was also charged with taking components from the company’s development laboratories, including a Linux server and circuit boards. According to CNBC, Zhang has now admitted guilt to a felony allegation of stealing trade secrets in San Jose federal court.
Zhang first entered a not guilty plea when he was charged in 2018. The news organization has received a court document (PDF) outlining the processes in which Zhang amended his plea. His plea bargain is confidential, and the court has noted that his sentence is set for November 14th in it. Zhang may spend up to ten years in jail and pay a fine of $250,000.
Zhang was a hardware engineer for Apple’s autonomous car business and a member of the group that creates and tests circuit boards for sensors prior to his arrest. Circuit designs are often regarded as some of the most important trade secrets in electronics, as CNBC points out. When Zhang submitted his resignation after returning from paternity leave and a trip to China, Apple allegedly first accused him of stealing from the business. He informed the business that he was leaving in order to return to China and care for his mother.
Additionally, Zhang disclosed to Apple his intention to collaborate with XPeng Motors, a producer of electric vehicles that is also working on building its own autonomous driving technology. After quitting, he lost access to Apple’s resources, and an investigation soon after that. Through that inquiry, Apple learned that he used AirDrop to transmit terabytes of very sensitive data, and through CCTV footage, they observed him physically removing gear from the company’s laboratories.
The IT giant is still keeping its work on the creation of driverless vehicles a secret. According to a report by Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman from last year, Apple has chosen to concentrate on creating fully autonomous driving skills and plans to introduce its driverless electric vehicle in 2025.