While Apple has never officially announced its secret self-driving car project, you can certainly consider this to be a confirmation.
On July 7, a former Apple employee was arrested by federal authorities at the Mineta San Jose International Airport while attempting to board a last minute flight to China. Federal prosecutors have charged Xiaolang Zhang, who had worked as a hardware engineer on Apple’s self-driving car project before abruptly leaving the company, with stealing trade secrets.
Zhang had started working at Apple designing hardware and software for its autonomous car project in May 2015. According to the criminal complaint, Zhang “designed and tested circuit boards to analyze sensor data.”
The former Apple employee went on paternity leave on April 1. When he returned to work on April 30, Zhang informed his supervisor that he would be leaving the company and moving to China. Zhang later revealed he was leaving Apple to work at Chinese electric and autonomous car startup Xiaopeng Motors, also known as XMotors.
While looking into Zhang’s abrupt exit from the company, Apple’s security team discovered he had transferred numerous internal technical documents relating to the self-driving project to his wife’s computer. Security footage also caught Zhang leaving the autonomous project’s lab, taking with him a box full of hardware including circuit boards and a Linux server.
According to the FBI complaint, “approximately 5,000 of Apple’s over 135,000 full time employees” have access to information pertaining to Apple’s autonomous vehicle project. Of those people, 2,700 have clearance to one or more of project’s confidential databases.
If found guilty of trade secret theft, Zhang faces 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.