Ex-Tesla employee admits uploading top secret autopilot data before move to Chinese rival

A former high-ranking Tesla employee, who left to join a Chinese competitor, has admitted to uploading a trove of confidential data pertaining to the tech company’s autopilot feature to his personal iCloud.

Guangzhi Cao was one of only 40 Tesla employees, out of 45,000, with access to the source code for the autopilot system. Last year Cao admitted to uploading copies of the code to a personal account, as well as moving more than 300,000 files and directories related to the autopilot system.

Tesla sued Cao in March, alleging that he stole trade secrets from them and brought the information to their Chinese rival, Xiaopeng Motors (also known as XPeng).

Cao’s defense lawyers responded to the filing this week, by saying their client admits to uploading the material, but maintains that he “made extensive efforts to delete and/or remove any such Tesla files prior to his separation from Tesla.”

In court documents, Tesla claims Cao worked on the “crown jewel of Tesla’s intellectual property portfolio” and alleges he began uploading thousands of files after XPeng offered him the role of ‘head of perception’ in November 2018.

XPeng’s electric vehicle (EV) P7 is unveiled during the media day for Shanghai auto show in Shanghai, China, April 16, 2019. © Reuters / Aly Song

Cao claims he received a formal offer from XPeng on December 12, deleted 120,000 files from his iCloud on or around December 26, and left Tesla on January 3, 2019.

Tesla claims at least five employees, including Cao, have left to join XPeng. The suit also points to a case from last year in which a former Apple employee was arrested by the FBI, and charged with stealing troves of data from the company’s self-driving car lab, after announcing his intention to move to XPeng.