Tesla Inc. and Apple Inc. both suspect they were betrayed by driverless technology engineers who defected to the same Chinese startup.
So Tesla is now asking for Apple’s help in a lawsuit in which the electric carmaker accused an engineer who worked on its Autopilot program of taking thousands of highly confidential files when he went to work for XMotors.ai, the U.S. research arm of Guangzhou-based Xpeng.
Along with typical information demands in the early fact-finding phase of the lawsuit that were spelled out in a court filing last week — Tesla wants to see the engineer’s emails and have a forensic analysis conducted on his electronic devices — the company founded by Elon Musk disclosed that it has also served the iPhone maker with a subpoena.
The documents Tesla seeks from Apple aren’t specified in the filing, but the thinking may be that while the Silicon Valley titans are rivals in the ultra-hot self-driving space, they share a common enemy in Xpeng.
Last July, prosecutors charged a hardware engineer in Apple’s autonomous vehicle-development team with downloading proprietary files as he prepared to leave the company and start work for the Chinese company. The engineer has pleaded not guilty.
Apple didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
The former Tesla engineer, Guangzhi Cao, acknowledged in a court filing that he downloaded copies of Tesla’s Autopilot-related source code to his personal iCloud account, but denies any wrongdoing.
Cao “has done precisely nothing with Tesla’s IP,” having “diligently and earnestly” tried to scrub all of Tesla’s source code from his personal devices and volunteered to provide the company with complete forensic copies of any devices it wished to inspect, his lawyers wrote.
Xpeng — which hasn’t been accused of wrongdoing by Apple or Tesla — has said it plays by the rules and has denied having any part in the engineers’ alleged misconduct. The company has said that when it was notified in June 2018 that U.S. authorities were investigating the Apple engineer, his computer and office equipment were secured and he was denied access to his work and subsequently fired.
Xpeng, which is backed by Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. and Foxconn Technology Group, is among the startups in China striving to reshape the auto industry as the world’s biggest market promotes new-energy vehicles in an effort to clean its air and cut its reliance on oil imports.
The Verge reported on the court filing earlier.