Visitors look at a Jidu Robo-01 electric SUV during the 20th Guangzhou International Automobile Exhibition at Canton Fair Complex on Dec. 30, 2022 in Guangzhou, China.
Zou Wei | Visual China Group | Getty Images
On Tuesday, the U.S. government accused a former Apple employee, Weibao Wang, of stealing trade secrets from the company’s self-driving car division, including the entirety of Apple’s “autonomous” source code.
The U.S. government did not identify in the charging documents who Wang works for now, but according to Reuters and several company profiles, Wang is an executive at Jidu, an electric vehicle joint venture between Chinese internet company Baidu and Chinese car maker Geely.
The U.S. government is concerned that the Chinese government is using various tactics to steal proprietary information from American companies, including “corrupting insiders.” Tuesday’s announcement was part of a Department of Justice task force designed to “counter efforts by hostile nation-states to illicitly acquire sensitive U.S technology.”
Federal prosecutors have accused Wang of agreeing to work for a U.S. subsidiary of a Chinese automaker months before he left Apple in 2018, and of stealing privileged information dealing with Apple’s autonomous systems development, allegedly to give to an unnamed Chinese company.
According to a since-deleted LinkedIn profile that appeared in a Chinese-language interview, after Wang left Apple he began working at a healthcare AI firm called Singularity.AI, which has offices in California and China. Following that, he worked as chief technology officer at a Chinese self-driving car company, Neolix. In 2021, Wang joined Jidu to run the company’s intelligent driving efforts.
In June 2018, law enforcement searched Wang’s apartment because of Apple’s suspicions over him taking internal Apple files. Wang purchased a ticket and flew to China the same day, according to Tuesday’s filing. Tuesday’s charges suggest that Wang can no longer travel to the U.S. without risking arrest.
Wang is the third former Apple employee from China to be accused of stealing trade secrets from Apple’s self-driving car division. Xiaolang Zhang, who worked at Apple around the same time as Wang, pled guilty to stealing trade secrets from Apple in August. Another former Apple employee, Jizhong Chen, is also facing charges, but a trial date for his case has yet to be set.
Neither Zhang nor Chen were able to leave the country before they were arrested separately in 2018 and 2019, and Apple lawyers said in 2019 that they were worried that they would flee to China.
Apple has reportedly been working on a self-driving car since at least 2015, although it has never discussed its goals or plans publicly and no Apple car has been announced. The most public sign of Apple’s efforts is a fleet of cars with sensors for gathering data, which can be spotted driving around some California neighborhoods.
In February, Jidu confirmed that it plans to deliver its first car this year and that it plans to use ChatGPT-like technology in its vehicles.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of California, which is prosecuting the case, declined to comment. An Apple representative declined to comment. Baidu and the FBI’s San Francisco field office did not immediately respond to requests for comment.