Former Apple Car Engineer Gets Prison Sentence for Stealing Trade Secrets

Apple treating Apple Car leaks with utmost important 9 photos
Photo: Bogdan Popa/autoevolution/Apple
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Apple treats unreleased projects with the utmost importance, with the company typically trying to prevent leaks by restricting access to critical information to essential staff.
However, as we learn every year before a new iPhone generation's debut, leaks still happen in the Apple world, and despite the company investigating such cases in FBI style, one particular case eventually involved the Feds, too.

Xiaolang Zhang is a former Apple engineer involved in several key projects at the company, including the self-driving vehicle technology supposed to be used on a potential Apple car. The vehicle, internally codenamed Project Titan, is still in the works, with people familiar with the matter claiming its development started in 2014.

An official investigation discovered that Zhang took parental leave and traveled to China, eventually leaving the tech giant and joining XMotors. The move looked suspicious, as the Chinese startup focuses on self-driving technology.

Apple's teams analyzed Zhang's work devices and contacted the FBI when it was discovered that the former engineer had extracted several confidential documents related to Project Titan. One particular file included a 25-page document detailing a circuit board for self-driving cars, which Apple considered using on the Apple Car.

The FBI filed charges against Zhang in 2018. He pled not guilty, but he changed his mind in 2022 when he pled guilty.

As reported recently, the United States District Court announced the sentence this week after six years, with Zhang to spend 120 days in prison and pay $145K in restitution. He'll also serve a term of three years with supervised release.

Apple did not comment on the sentence.

Meanwhile, the iPhone maker continues the work on the Apple Car, with the latest unofficial information pointing to a potential launch in 2026. Apple keeps pushing back the vehicle's launch date due to roadblocks encountered during the development phase.

Apple initially wanted the vehicle to offer full self-driving capabilities. It was supposed to sport an innovative living room on wheels approach, with Apple even considering a design without a steering wheel and pedals. The idea was eventually dropped, with a 2023 report indicating that Apple tweaked the project to include a more conventional approach with steering wheels, pedals, and limited self-driving capabilities.

The latest information regarding the development phase indicates that Apple's ambitions in the automotive space have been lowered again, as the iPhone maker is again giving up on more innovative systems specifically to launch the car as soon as possible. Apple is afraid it could be late to the party, so it wants to release the first-generation model and keep certain innovative technologies for the second-generation car. If the first car launches in 2026 or 2028, the second model should go live early in the next decade.
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About the author: Bogdan Popa
Bogdan Popa profile photo

Bogdan keeps an eye on how technology is taking over the car world. His long-term goals are buying an 18-wheeler because he needs more space for his kid’s toys, and convincing Google and Apple that Android Auto and CarPlay deserve at least as much attention as their phones.
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